Bill Endicott

Viewpoints: Government surveillance, sedition and Orwellian times

Published: Wednesday, Jun. 26, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A
Last Modified: Friday, Jul. 19, 2013 - 9:55 pm

The leaked news that the government has us all under surveillance has touched off fears of a future in which our every movement is monitored by one agency or another. And on top of that, we learned last week that the Obama administration is pressing federal employees to spy on each other and report any suspicious behavior.

If it all sounds a bit Orwellian, that's because it is. But the administration assures us, as any administration would, that its motives are pure and that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Maybe, maybe not. Governments will always put a positive spin on whatever they are doing.

But the leaker-in-chief in this sordid affair, Edward Snowden, is starting to look more and more like a smug, self-righteous coward ducking the consequences of his actions than the super patriot he seems to fancy himself.

Still, surveillance or not, the press and public remain free to comment, criticize, take sides and generally weigh in with their opinion, no matter how informed or uninformed.

There was a time in our nation's history when that was not the case, and when a critical word about the government could land you in prison for up to 20 years.

The year was 1918, Americans were in a Europe battling Germany in World War I, and Congress, at the urging of President Woodrow Wilson, passed the Sedition Act, which forbade the use of "disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language" about the government, the flag or the military.

Anti-German fervor was so high that ballparks stopped selling pretzels and owners of dachshunds were shunned. Neighbors were encouraged to spy on neighbors. Baseball parks became de facto recruiting stations where federal agents checked for men not registered for the draft and carted them off to be inducted into the service.

In several instances, baseball team owners, anxious to prove their patriotism and trying to keep baseball from being shut down for the duration of the war, lined their players up in military precision with Army officers calling cadence and had them march onto the field carrying their bats like rifles.

Silliness knew no bounds.

Author Troy Soos, in a historical novel titled "Murder at Wrigley Field," recounts the day the Chicago Cubs were put through such paces to impress the secretary of war, Newton Baker, who believed that healthy young men belonged on the battlefield, not baseball fields.

Soos has one of his characters say that the owners apparently thought that by marching players around with bats on their shoulders "they could convince Uncle Sam we were training for war, not merely playing a game. I thought not even the U.S. government could be that gullible."

Gullible or not, the baseball season continued.

Most major newspapers not only raised no objections to the Sedition Act but editorialized in favor of its speedy enactment. It was not a proud time for journalism, or the editors and reporters who allowed themselves to be cowed by government intimidation. There were no Ben Bradlees among them, no Woodwards and Bernsteins.

In his book "The Great Influenza," author John M. Barry writes that there is so little information about the 1918 influenza pandemic because newspapers withheld information on the rationale that it might lower the morale of civilians at home and troops fighting the war.

An indication of how much things have changed politically in the last nearly 100 years is that the strongest opposition to the Sedition Act came from Republican senators, including former California Gov. Hiram Johnson, who assailed the Wilson administration for violating the First Amendment.

Perhaps the most famous prosecution under the act was that of labor activist and three-time Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. He was arrested, tried and convicted for making an anti-war speech in Canton, Ohio, in June 1918, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. His sentence was commuted to time served by Wilson's successor, President Warren G. Harding, in 1921, one year after Congress repealed its most infamous act.

A campaign by Wilson's attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, to enact a peacetime version thankfully failed, and at least one newspaper finally had had enough, the Christian Science Monitor declaring it "an excess of suppression."

William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor for The Bee.

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