In A Nutshell
After the terrorist attacks in the US in 2001, the Patriot Act was enacted, causing some Americans to fear that their days of free speech were over. However, Montana residents had already experienced a frightening loss of their free speech rights in the early 1900s during World War I. At that time, Montana’s new Sedition Law made it a crime to criticize the US government, including any opposition to the war. Even trivial infractions could be punished with fines and long prison sentences. The convicted were finally pardoned in 2006, but they were all dead by that time and the pardons couldn’t undo the damage to their lives.
The Whole Bushel
After the terrorist attacks in the US in 2001, the Patriot Act was enacted, causing some Americans to fear that their days of free speech were over. The members of the nonprofit Humanitarian Law Project (HLP) were particularly concerned that they would be unable to champion human rights and arbitrate international disputes in some instances without going to jail. They argued that a section of the Patriot Act made it a crime to work on behalf of any group identified as a terrorist organization by the Secretary of State. By definition, that work would include counseling a designated group on how to settle conflicts in a peaceful manner or make an allegation of human rights abuse in front of the United Nations.
While this may seem like a new occurrence in wartime, free speech issues have surfaced before in America. Although it wasn’t exactly the same as the Patriot Act, Montana residents experienced a frightening loss of their free speech rights in the early 1900s during World War I. At that time, Montana’s new Sedition Law made it a crime to criticize the US government, including any opposition to the war. Even trivial infractions could be punished with fines and long prison sentences.
One of the most egregious cases was that of German immigrant Herman Bausch. He worked hard to establish a successful farm in Montana. A pacifist, he was against America’s participation in World War I, which would cost him dearly. In April 1918, some prominent citizens of Billings, Montana, strode onto Bausch’s farm, insisting that he buy Liberty Bonds because he had the money. Bausch wouldn’t do it and voiced his opposition to the war openly. Declaring that his words were treasonous, the self-appointed group was going to hang him from a tree when his wife rushed outside with her baby son to stop them. Shortly after, Bausch was convicted under the Sedition Law in a two-day trial. His sentence: four to eight years in state prison. He served almost two and a half years of hard labor. During that time, he wasn’t permitted to see his sick baby son, who died of influenza during the pandemic of 1918–1919.
“My father came out of prison a broken man,” said daughter Fritzi Bausch Briner. “To not be considered an honorable citizen was a huge disappointment to him and he suffered mentally because of it. He was depressed and it all went downhill after that. We did not have a happy family situation.” Eventually, Bausch separated from his wife. He died in 1958.
Altogether, Montana tried 125 people under its Sedition law in the early 1900s. Seventy-nine were convicted and faced prison terms of as much as 10–20 years and fines as high as $20,000. Most of the convictions stemmed from casual remarks that were deemed to be anti-American or pro-German. Paranoia spread, with residents informing on each other and the local newspapers questioning whether the enemy had already invaded Montana. The prosecutions didn’t last long because World War I was over in late 1918. But the damage to these families was permanent in many cases. Some people lost their homes and their children, who were put in orphanages in some cases. Many siblings didn’t see each other again for decades. But as quickly as these lives were ruined, they were also forgotten for a long time. As a University of Montana law student once said, “This is a little embarrassing [for] someone who’s grown up in Montana her whole life, but I had no idea that such a law had ever been passed.”
On that same day in 2006, the convicted were finally pardoned. But they were all dead by that time and the pardons couldn’t undo the damage to their lives.