October 16, 2011

Letters and The Law: Letter to the Editor!

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On a not-so-recent trip to my hometown, St. Paul, Minnesota, I paid a visit to the old federal building, now called Landmark Center. While touring the courtrooms of the floor once occupied by the federal courts, I ran across a provocatively titled placard:

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In the midst of World War I, Congress passed and the President signed the Espionage Act, which in part, "empowered the postmaster general to declare any material that violated any provision of the Espionage Act or that urged "treason, insurrection, or forcible resistance to any law of the United States" unmailable. Use of the mails to transmit such materials was punishable by imprisonment and a fine." Source. While no one was convicted of espionage or spying under the Act, federal prosecutors used the Act's lesser provisions to obtain over 1,000 convictions.

One of those prosecuted under the Act was Rose Pastor Stokes, a known Socialist who, despite disavowing the party's opposition to the war and being married to a member of the armed forces, was found guilty at trial and sentenced to ten years in prison for transmitting a prohibited message via post to a local newspaper:
No government which is for the profiteers can also be for the people, and I am for the people, while the government is for the profiteers.
It seems it took some Minnesotan sensibility to determine Mrs. Stokes' right to free speech trumped an aggressive reading of the Espionage Act. Two years after her trial, a Minnesota judge authored the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision overturned Mrs. Stokes' conviction. And, with the war then over, the federal prosecutors declined to press forward with the case, leaving Mrs. Stokes free to continue advocating her causes and writing letters to the editor.