From Our Archives: Muzzling the Press

Way back in 1918, The Progressive published an essay entitled "Muzzling of the Press," criticizing the extraordinary new powers granted to the President under The Espionage Act of 1917.

The law allowed U.S. Presidents to prosecute leakers and suppress the publication of information on U.S. military and defense-related matters. Almost a century later, the Obama Administration invoked the Espionage Act when it prosecuted Bradley Manning and seized the phone records of A.P. reporters.

Here is what the magazine had to say about the Espionage Act when it was young:

“Muzzling of the Press” by Richard Barry, December 1918:
There exists in the United States today a control of the press and a suppression of vital news and public discussion which it Is difficult to parallel in English-speaking countries unless one goes back to the time of King lames. As yet the eclipse is only partial, but unless effective attention is called to the fact, it Is not inconceivable that it may become total.
This condition has developed by such gradual stages that unless the picture of it is fully painted, most people would be Inclined to doubt its existence. However, if one will take into consideration everything pertaining to this condition, including the operation of the Espionage Act, the supervision of the military censor, the orders of the War Industries Board, the apathy of many editors, and will realize that these are supplemented by the special efforts of countless Government agents, assisted by the Department of Justice, the Secret Service, and others, he will realize that the total effect is the practical abolition of the Constitutional guarantees respecting free speech.

Fundamentally, the laws regarding free speech and a free press are the same today as they .were before our declaration of war. It is the general conviction, therefore, that free speech and a free press still exist. Everyone agrees that on the subject of disloyalty there can be no equivocation, and the ordinary mental attitude of the average American toward this problem is that it is better to suffer free speech and a free press to be in some measure curtailed if that is the price necessary to pay for the suppression of all disloyalty. However, the question remains: Are the powers now exerted by various departmental heads at Washington used solely for the generally sanctioned purpose of suppressing disloyalty? It must not be assumed, in considering these facts, that the President in his own person is aware of the full extent of their indirect bearing, or even, in many instances, of their direct bearing. They are largely the result of an assumed authority only partially committed to his appointees.

The President, in the minds of many, symbolizes the sovereignty of the United States. No one will impute to that a wrong intent; but, under its cloak, many wrongs, some unwittingly, some with intent, may be committed.

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Erik Lorenzsonn is an editorial intern at The Progressive.