After 88 Years, 78 Immigrants Get Justice

May 3, 2006 — -- Their faces stare at you from the past. Row upon row of 88-year-old black-and-white mug shots of newly arrived immigrants.

Martin Wehinger, born in Austria, convicted in Montana for speaking out against World War I. Ben Kahn, a farmer born in eastern Poland, arrested in Montana for sedition, calling the war a "rich man's war." Janet Smith, arrested for sedition in Montana after declaring the Red Cross was a "fake." Fred Rodewald, born in Hanover, Germany, charged with sedition in Montana for suggesting that Americans "would have hard times" if Germany's kaiser "didn't get over here and rule this country."

In all, 75 men and three women were convicted in 1918 and 1919 in Montana. About 40 of them collectively served 65 years in prison because they criticized the government of their newly adopted country, the United States of America.

"They should not have served a day," is the opinion of students at the University of Montana who took it upon themselves to seek posthumous pardons for Montanans convicted under their state's anti-sedition law that was considered among the harshest in the country at the time. Photos and case histories are posted on the school's "Montana Sedition Project" Web site.

Today Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a descendant of German-Russian immigrants who migrated here in 1909, undid the convictions by granting pardons for the 78 "felons" in a ceremony in Helena, Mont.

Before a packed crowd at the state capitol, Schweitzer signed the pardons and told relatives, "Across the country it was a time in which we had lost our minds. So today in Montana, we will say to an entire generation of people, we are sorry. And we challenge the rest of the country to do the same."

Schweitzer called those who were convicted of sedition during World War I "patriots." He added, "It's not the American way for neighbor to spy on neighbors. And today we ask that we never forget the mistakes that we've made so that we don't make them again."

For families of the "seditionists," the pardons brought at least some measure of redemption. Steve Milch, great-grandson of immigrants from Bavaria who had been convicted of sedition told reporters, "The Milch clan appreciates the governor making things right."

Milch said at the time there were mobs of people demanding that German-Americans kiss the U.S. flag. "My great-grandfather told them he didn't kiss anybody's flag, whether it was American or German," Milch told the New York Times.

Schweitzer told the assembled relatives that what he had to say is what Gov. Sam Stewart should have said when he signed Montana's Sedition Act into law in 1918. "I'm sorry, forgive me, and God bless America, because we can now criticize our government," Schweitzer said.

Montana got tough a year after the United States declared war against Germany. The United States believed its national interests were threatened when a German plan, revealed in the so-called Zimmerman telegram, stated Germany wanted to cede territory in Texas and Arizona to Mexico if Mexico would declare war on the United States.

President Woodrow Wilson was concerned about the large number of people in the country who had been born in Germany and Austria, and tried to avoid going to war. But once the United States declared war in April 1917, it was open season on German and Austrian Americans. No less than 27 states enacted sedition laws. In some states, it was even against the law to speak German.

Since Germans were the largest ethnic group in Montana, they became a target. Some were even arrested for refusing to buy war bonds; they were considered "pro-German."

The pardoning of Montana's sedition prisoners is the result of a collaborative effort by the University of Montana's School of Journalism and law professor Jeffrey Renz, whose students took on the project as part of a criminal law clinic.

Clemens Work, who directs journalism graduate students, wrote a book called "Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West," which provided the initial research for the students. The book chronicles the atmosphere of suspicion during World War I and focuses on the climate of distrust among many who doubted the patriotism of newly arrived immigrants, who were mostly from Germany and Austria.

"It was an ugly time," Work said. It was a time when "hanging judges" were in power and newspaper editors crusaded in favor of the war. Work says he was collecting research for his book when the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks occurred and he was struck by the similarities between 2001 and 1918. "The rhetoric was so similar. Demonize the enemy, 'you're either with us or against us,'" he says.

Montana's law was patterned after the federal Sedition Act of 1798 but was even harsher. It was a crime to say or publish anything "disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous or abusive" about the government, the American flag or soldiers. The law expired when the war ended.

The same sort of paranoia existed during World War II when Japanese-Americans were rounded up and imprisoned in 10 internment camps. Manzanar War Relocation Center in California was one of the largest such facilities and today has become a National Historic Site with reconstructed facilities for tourists to visit and learn about America's rampant anti-Japanese fears and lack of tolerance at the time.

Newly arrived immigrants have always faced discrimination in this land of immigrants. "It's the old saying, 'I've got mine, now shut the door,'" a building contractor who hires Mexican laborers told me recently. "It applies to development, people, resources and even so-called free speech," he said. "It crops up every time we're at war or economically challenged. So much for the first amendment."

For families of those who "should not have served a day," today provided some justice but also a painful reminder that free speech is not always free.