The Espionage Act aka Spy Act
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Sure, it’s name is well-known, and important people have violated it for decades, but what exactly is the Espionage Act? What does it do? Why is it so bad when people violate it? If at this point it feels too late to ask you significant other, work colleagues, or scholarly aunt about the Espionage Act, let me clear a few things up.
- What is it? The Espionage Act is a federal law in the United States that prohibits interfering with military operations, prevents military insubordination, and prevents support of enemies during wartime.
- Why does it exist? The law was passed on June 15, 1917, soon after the United States entered WWI. Originally, any action that interfered with the armed forces and the public’s support could be considered a violation, punishable by long prison sentences and even death. The simple act of distributing anti-war pamphlets was considered a violation of the Espionage Act.
- What about freedom of speech? The act has been amended quite a few times since its creation. For example, in 1921, a large section of the Espionage Act entitled “Sedition” was removed. This section was the main part of the act that limited the speech of the public. However, this aspect of the Espionage Act that seems to infringe upon the 1st Amendment that grants the public freedom of speech and freedom of the press is still widely debated.
- How is it used to convict people? The Espionage Act has been used most recently in the convictions of a handful of government employees who released classified information to various media outlets. Most recently, in June of 2013, Edward Snowden released information about the NSA’s top secret surveillance program PRISM to the public. He was charged with “unauthorized communication of national defense information.” Snowden could face up to 30 years in prison under the act. He has been living in an undisclosed location in Russia since his release of information.
This is arguably one of the most controversial laws in the United States. The danger of the Espionage Act is that it has historically been used as a sneaky way to convict whistleblowers within the United States government for coming forward with proof of unethical action.