Thursday, May 04, 2006

WWI Sedition Convictions Pardoned

Strange story.

Farida Briner remembers her mother talking about the day a committee of fellow Montanans confronted her German-born father on the family farm near Billings. "We should hang him from his own apple tree!" one of them yelled.

Herman Bausch's crime? He spoke his opposition to the war being fought in Europe in 1918, and to the Liberty bonds and stamp drives that supported it.
On Wednesday, Briner, 75, stood in the rotunda of the Montana State Capitol and watched Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer sign a pardon of Bausch and 77 other Montanans convicted of sedition during and after World War I.

The pardons were the result of research by a University of Montana professor that inspired a group of law and journalism students to help clear the names of men and women who spoke out against the government in a time of war.

Montana's sedition laws served as a model for the federal sedition laws also passed in 1918. Other states had such laws, but none was more vigorous in pressing them than Montana.

Remarks that were labeled seditious - in one case, the observation, "This is a rich man's war" in a saloon - carried fines approaching $20,000 and sentences of up to 20 years in jail.

Martin Wehinger told a group of Teamsters, "We had no business sticking our nose in there, and we should get licked for doing so." He served 18 months in Deer Lodge State Penitentiary.

A hundred fifty people were charged under the laws in 1918 and 1919. Forty men and one woman served time in state prison. One man was pardoned in the 1920s after it was discovered that witnesses had lied at his trial.

For Schweitzer, the descendant of ethnic Germans who emigrated from Russia, the issue had both personal and patriotic resonance.

"I want to send a message," said Schweitzer. "Neighbor informing on neighbor -— this isn't the American way, it isn't the Montana way, it isn't the cowboy way. We weren't the only state to have this kind of hysteria, but we will be the first state to say, 'We had it wrong.' "
Funny hearing the press yelping about curtailment of civil rights when you read things like this.

Of course, no surprise that someone takes it too far.
The Sedition Project sent the governor a letter at the end of March asking for the pardons. The letter was signed by 39 people, mostly lawyers and historians, including 1st Amendment attorney Robert Corn-Revere.

Corn-Revere, who worked on comedian Lenny Bruce's 2003 posthumous pardon for a 1964 New York state obscenity conviction, said he thought Montana's pardons mattered for more than just correcting history.

"It is of particular importance right now," said Corn-Revere, "as we are constantly bartering our rights away in return for more security.
I'd like to know if he thinks we have more or less freedoms now than we did in the WWI period. It still strikes me that this kind of statement denies the facts that some security is needed for freedoms to exist. Freedoms, like rights, don't exist in a vacuum. Someone needs to stand to enforce them. That is a provision of security. Without some agency protecting our freedoms and rights those same will be taken from us.

Can this lawyer honestly state that we are worse off now than during WWI? Nice speech, but how about some reality while we're at it.

1 comment:

Granted said...

Wild stuff. Thanks for posting this one.
Disturbing how disconnected from reality the "reality-based" community can be.