HELENA, Mont. (AP) – It was a black mark on dozens of family histories that lingered for nearly nine decades – until a journalism professor and a group of law students examined what happened to citizens who spoke out against the government during World War I.
On Wednesday, nearly 80 people convicted of sedition amid the war’s anti-German hysteria received the first posthumous pardons in Montana history, including one who was charged merely for calling the conflict a “rich man’s war” and mocking food regulations during a time of rationing.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer said the state was “about 80 years too late” in pardoning the mostly working-class people of German descent who were convicted of breaking what was then one of the harshest sedition laws in the nation.
“This should have been done a long time ago,” said Schweitzer, the son of German immigrants.
About 40 family members attended a ceremony where the governor signed the pardons, including descendants of farmers, butchers, carpenters and cooks.
Keith Sime’s uncle, Herman Bausch, was a pacifist who refused to buy war bonds and spent 28 months in prison for being outspoken about it. Sime said it was important for the state to finally recognize the injustice.
August Lambrecht was imprisoned for seven months for predicting the United States would “get a licking” in France. His great-grandson, David Gabriel, said Lambrecht left the state after his release for fear of being imprisoned again.
“This is America,” Gabriel said. “Having freedom of speech and saying what is on your mind doesn’t make you a criminal and it shouldn’t.”
Seventy-eight men and one woman were convicted of sedition. They were imprisoned for an average of 19 months, often based on casual comments made in saloons. At the time, profane language or insulting the virtues of women usually resulted in a longer sentence.
Journalism professor Clem Work of the University of Montana said many were turned in by friends, acquaintances or in some cases by people jealous of their land holdings.
“Today’s a day of redemption and redress, helping the families put closure to the wounds and at the same time make an affirmative statement for free speech,” said Work, who wrote a book on the case.
Liquor salesman Ben Kahn spent 34 months in prison. “This is a rich man’s war, and we have no business in it,” he told a hotel owner. “The poor man has no show in this war. The soldiers are fighting the battles of the rich.”
While some of the comments seem shockingly benign, others were less so. But even those who cussed the president and the flag should not be considered criminals, said Work, whose book, “Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West,” inspired law students at the university to write petitions for the pardons and help find family members.
“These people merely expressed their opinions and made derogatory or critical remarks about the U.S., the war, the soldiers or the flag,” he said.
Family members were often shocked to learn a grandfather or uncle had been in prison.
“Whether they knew about it or not, it was a black spot in the family history,” Work said. “Some families had hidden it away, trying to keep it from later generations.”
Under Montana’s sedition law, it was illegal to make “any disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous, slurring or abusive” comment about the Constitution, the federal government, soldiers or sailors, the flag or the uniforms of the Army or Navy.
Laws at the time even made it illegal to speak German. Schweitzer said his grandmother was not allowed to speak the only language she knew while out in public.
After serving their sentences, many of those who were convicted often moved out of the state and started new lives.
Work warned that similar cases could happen again if the nation caves in to fear and hysteria, pitting security against liberty.
“It is not until decades later in these cases that we recognize we overstepped our bounds,” Work said.
Laws designed to enhance security after the 2001 terrorist attacks are encroaching on civil liberties, he said, adding that more attacks would increase pressure to restrict basic freedoms.
The governor agreed.
“In times when our county is pushed to our limits, those are the times when it is most important to remember individual rights,” said Schweitzer, who has spoken out strongly against the USA Patriot Act, the sweeping anti-terror law Congress renewed this year.
The Democrat said Montana has learned the hard way “that neighbors spying on neighbors is not the cowboy way.”
Law student Katie Olson, who worked on the project, said shedding light on the case is not enough. “The lessons are meaningless unless we learn from them,” she said. “It is never too late to learn the lessons history wants to teach us.”
On the Net:
Sedition Project: www.seditionproject.net