MISSOULA, Montana - On April 23, 1918, with the U.S. in the depths of World War I, Fred Rodewald, a German immigrant homesteader who had settled with his family on 320 acres in eastern Montana, uttered a sentence that forever changed his life.
He suggested that Americans "would have hard times" if Germany's Kaiser "didn't get over here and rule this country."
That remark earned him two years in prison for violating Montana's Sedition Act. When he went off to the penitentiary in Deer Lodge that October, the 42-year-old Rodewald left behind a pregnant wife and eight children. The armistice ended the war less than a month later.
Now, nearly 90 years later, law students at the University of Montana have begun a quest, prowling dusty archives and musty courthouse storage rooms across the state to clear Rodewald and 73 other Montanans convicted of sedition.
The project provides a contrast between the waning days of World War I, when a farmer could be jailed for suggesting that it was a "rich man's war," and today, when citizens can criticize the war in Iraq without fear of prosecution, if not without fear of government surveillance.
Sparked by "Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West," a new book by Clemens Work, a University of Montana journalism professor, seven law students have begun reinvestigating the cases to prepare clemency petitions that they intend to present to Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer this spring.
When notified of the possibility of a pardon, Rodewald's granddaughter Phyllis Rolf wept. "I will be very, very happy if they can clear not only my grandfather but all of them," said Rolf, who lives in Minnesota.
Today, with criticism of the government's conduct of the war heard in the halls of Congress and read on the Internet, Rodewald's remark about the Kaiser seems rather innocuous.
"If [Montana's sedition] law was around now, I probably would be in jail myself — relating to Iraq," said one of the law students, Jason Lazark, 28, of Sebastopol, Calif. "The modern context interests me because free speech is such an important thing — to be able to speak about the war and not to be thrown into jail."
Schweitzer, a plain-spoken man whose German-Russian grandparents immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Montana, said in a recent interview that he had just finished reading Work's book. And although the Democratic governor made no promises, he appeared favorably disposed to granting clemency if petitions were presented.
"I would be interested," Schweitzer said. "There was a time when 40% of the people in Montana spoke German and there was a law that prohibited anyone from speaking German from the pulpit.
"If we locked people up today for calling politicians liars, we would have to build a lot more jails," he said.
After Montana enacted its Sedition Act in 1918, an array of ranchers, farmers, loggers, butchers, cooks and bartenders — people scratching out a living in fierce winters and scorching summers in the rugged West — was convicted of making anti-government statements. Some of the remarks were little more than profanity-laced tirades uttered in saloons.
For example, Work unearthed the case of Adam Steck, a 53-year-old German immigrant bartender in Helena who was sent to prison for calling the American flag a "dirty rag" and saying: "This damned country is bankrupt already, and do they expect to lick Germany? No, they never did and they never will."
America's first law against sedition, the Sedition Act of 1798, was enacted to silence opposition to what was then a growing fear of war with France. The law expired in 1801.
There were no further federal legislative actions against disloyal expression until after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, when Congress passed the Espionage Act.
The first case in Montana that came to trial under the Espionage Act was against Ves Hall, a rancher who lived near the junction of Otter Creek and the Tongue River in the southeastern part of the state. Hall was accused of speaking against the draft and saying that Germany would win the war and that President Wilson was the crookedest president ever, according to Work.
But after a three-day trial in Helena, U.S. District Judge George Bourquin acquitted Hall, ruling that the Espionage Act was "not intended to suppress criticism or denunciation
of the president
but only false facts, willfully put forward as true."
It was a time, Work wrote in the book, of hyperpatriotism in Montana, and the acquittal so outraged the state's politicians that the Legislature went into special session. Twenty-eight days after Hall's acquittal, the state sedition law was signed.
"Montana's law was the broadest, most repressive anti-speech law passed by a state in the history of the country," Work said in an interview. Three months later, Congress passed a national sedition law, "largely due to the influence of Montana politicians and legislative leaders," he said.
The federal law, except for three words, was a copy of Montana's law. Ultimately, about 2,000 men and women would be convicted under the national Espionage and Sedition Acts, including Eugene Debs, who organized the American Railway Union, the nation's first industrial union, in Chicago.
Work, an attorney and former deputy director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, said he began researching the Montana sedition cases as an outgrowth of a media law class he teaches at the University of Montana.
A former reporter for U.S. News & World Report, Work said he was intrigued particularly because of the post-Sept. 11 sentiments of "Are you with us or against us?"
"There are some parallels in the sense that the Patriot Act represents some retrenchment of our civil liberties and free speech," Work said. "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."
Earlier this year, during a reading at a bookstore in Missoula, where he lives, Work said he was asked what he hoped to accomplish with his research.
"I said that in my box of dreams, I hoped that someday they would be exonerated," Work said.
Jeff Renz, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the university's law school, was at the store that day, and a short time later contacted Work and suggested that his law students prepare clemency petitions.
"At first, I wasn't sure it was important to exonerate these people," said Katie Olson, 26, of Great Falls, Mont., who is one of Renz's students. "But the more I thought about it, I realized that in the context of today's world, it's important to reaffirm the foundation of free speech."
Work said he was hopeful that the students would be able to locate more relatives, and he hoped relatives would come forward after hearing about the clemency project. A website http://www.seditionproject.net , contains personal details of the convicted individuals.
Rolf, 60, of Atwater, Minn., said in an interview that until Work found her while working on his book, she had been unaware of her grandfather's past.
"It was a complete surprise to me," she said. "It blew me off my chair. Now that I know about it, I hope the conviction will be written off the books."
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times