On Wednesday, Montana Governor Bryan Schweitzer pardoned 78 people who were convicted of sedition as a result of the anti-German hysteria during World War I. You can read the AP story here. The pardon was the result of research by University of Montana journalism professor Clemens Work. Work released the result of his research in the book, Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West. He began The Montana Sedition Project where Montana journalism and law students began to search for family members of the 78 and to write petitions for the pardons.
This story is cause for celebration and for concern. In the first instance, it is gratifying to see college students using the skills they are learning to advance the Constitutional right of freedom of speech. At the same time, it is disconcerting to see the possible parallels between the war hysteria that resulted in the Montana sedition act and the current hysteria that has resulted in The Patriot Act and a President who sees himself outside the law.
When asked about the parallels, Work said:
“There are some parallels in the sense that the (USA) Patriot Act represents some retrenchment of our civil liberties and free speech. It is not as raw and blatant as the Sedition Act, but it represents an effort by government and the Congress to bolster security at the price of liberty – not just the Patriot Act, but the language and rhetoric and debate over who is more patriotic.”