The Espionage Act was passed by Congress in 1917 after the United States entered the First World War. It prescribed a $10,000 fine and 20 years' imprisonment for interfering with the recruiting of troops or the disclosure of information dealing with national defence. Additional penalties were included for the refusal to perform military duty. Over the next few months around 900 went to prison under the Espionage Act.
Criticised as unconstitutional, the act resulted in the imprisonment of many of the anti-war movement. This included the arrest of left-wing political figures such as Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman. Debs was sentenced to ten years for a speech in Canton, Ohio, on 16th June, 1918, attacking the Espionage Act.
On 23rd August six members of the Frayhayt, a group of Jewish anarchists based in New York were arrested. Charged under the Espionage Act, the group were accused of publishing articles in the Der Shturm that undermined the American war effort. This included criticizing the United States government for invading Russia after the Bolshevik government signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty.
One of the group, Jacob Schwartz, was so badly beaten by the police when he was arrested that he died soon afterwards. Mollie Steimer was found guilty and sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment. Three of the men, Samuel Lipman, Hyman Lachowsky and Jacob Abrahams received twenty years. Zechariah Chafee of the Harvard Law School led the protests against the severity of the sentences. He pointed out had been convicted solely for advocating non-intervention in the affairs of another nation: "After priding ourselves for over a century on being an asylum for the oppressed of all nations, we ought not suddenly jump to the position that we are only an asylum for men who are no more radical than ourselves."
Others who joined in the protests included Meyer London, Felix Frankfurter, Norman Thomas, Roger Baldwin, Margaret Sanger, Lincoln Steffens, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Hutchins Hapgood, Leonard Dalton Abbott, Alice Stone Blackwell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Neith Boyce. A group, the League of Amnesty of Political Prisoners was formed and it published a leaflet on the case, Is Opinion a Crime? Steimer and the the other three anarchists were released on bail to await the results of their appeal.
Over 450 conscientious objectors were imprisoned as a result of this legislation including Rose Pastor Stokes who was sentenced to ten years in prison for saying, in a letter to the Kansas City Star, that "no government which is for the profiteers can also be for the people, and I am for the people while the government is for the profiteers." Soon afterwards Kate Richards O'Hare was sentenced to five years for making an anti-war speech in North Dakota.
The socialist journal, The Masses was prosecuted in 1918 under the Espionage Act. It was claimed by the authorities that articles by Floyd Dell and Max Eastman and cartoons by Art Young, Boardman Robinson and H. J. Glintenkamp had undermined the war effort. The legal action that followed forced the journal to cease publication.
Emma Goldman complained about the treatment of Mollie Steimer: "The entire machinery of the United States government was being employed to crush this slip of a girl weighing less than eighty pounds." On the 30th October, 1919, she was arrested she was taken to Blackwell Island. While in prison the Supreme Court upheld her conviction under the Espionage Act. However, two justices, Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, issued a strong dissenting opinion. Steimer was now transferred to the Jefferson City Prison in Missouri.
During this period A. Mitchell Palmer, the attorney general and his special assistant, John Edgar Hoover, used the Sedition Act to launch a campaign against radicals and their organizations. Using this legislation it was decided to remove immigrants who had been involved in left-wing politics. This included Mollie Steimer, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and 245 other people who were deported to Russia. A fellow anarchist, Marcus Graham, wrote: "In Russia their activity is yet more needed. For there, a government rules masquerading under the name of the proletariat and doing everything imaginable to enslave the proletariat."
During the Red Scare (1919-20) A. Mitchell Palmer, the attorney general and his special assistant, John Edgar Hoover, used the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act to launch a campaign against radicals and left-wing organizations. Under these two laws 1500 people were arrested for disloyalty.