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The Espionage Act | Study Guide

United States Congress

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United States Congress

Year Passed



Primary Source


History, Law

At a Glance

  • On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany, thus entering World War I (1914–18) on the side of Britain, France, and Russia.
  • While many Americans supported the war effort, a vocal and growing anti-war movement existed. Opponents spoke out against military intervention and the draft (required military service).
  • As the United States prepared to send troops to Europe, Congress passed the Espionage Act in June 1917.
  • The Espionage Act defined and prohibited various acts of espionage and sabotage against the United States and its war effort.
  • The highest penalties, including death, could be applied to those convicted of transmitting information about U.S. war materials and plans to foreign countries and hostile agents.
  • The law also prohibited interference with the draft, which was used from 1917 onward to enlist men for service in World War I.
  • The Espionage Act was supported by many but was also highly controversial. Opponents included anti-war activists and groups dedicated to civil liberties.
  • The Espionage Act was amended and strengthened in 1918 with the passage of the Sedition Act of 1918.
  • In Schenck v. United States (1919), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Espionage Act did not violate the First Amendment.


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