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The Montana Sedition Project
The Facts The Book The Pardons The Film UM School

Imagine meeting some friends at your local brewpub or coffee shop. The talk turns to the war. You criticize the President and his wealthy supporters. Next thing you know, a couple of husky fellows at the next table grab you, hustle you out the door and down to the local police station. You are arrested on a charge of sedition. Within months you are indicted, tried and convicted. The judge sentences you to 5-10 years in prison -- and off you go!

Think this could never happen? Well, it did, and not that long ago --during World War I -- to scores of ordinary people in Montana. They discovered very painfully that their free speech rights had been stripped away by the state legislature.

turretThis site is about the 76 men and three women convicted of sedition in Montana in 1918 and 1919. The law they ran afoul of was possibly the harshest anti-speech law passed by any state in the history of the United States. Forty of those men -- and one woman -- were locked up in the state penitentiary in Deer Lodge, sentenced to up to 20 years. They were sent there for simply expressing their opinions about President Wilson, about America's entry into World War I, about the armed forces, or about the flag. One man was sentenced to 7 - 20 years for saying the wartime food regulations were a "big joke."

The language these people were convicted for was often harsh and crude. Some were contemptuous or disrespectful of the government or scornful of its war effort. Many spoke without thinking or under the influence of alcohol. But their words posed no danger to the government or its war effort. Yet they received swift justice. Collectively, they served 65 years in a prison whose warden had a particular hatred for them.

They should not have served a day. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer agreed. On May 3, 2006, he signed a Proclamation of Pardon for 78 persons convicted of sedition in 1918-1919 (one man had been pardoned in 1921).

Here you can read their stories and learn about the conditions that led to this dark period in Montana's history. Their loss of liberty was a loss for us all. In our country, the free exchange of ideas, which necessarily includes unpopular opinions, is at the heart of our democracy, and must be protected.

Only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed, it is most vital to justice.
-- William Allen White

A project of the University of Montana School of Journalism

Project Director: Professor Clemens P. Work