During World War I, anyone who expressed opposition to the war did so at his or her own peril.
The 1917 Espionage Act penalized disloyalty, giving false reports, or otherwise interfering with the war effort. The Sedition Act of 1918 made it a crime to "willfully utter… any disloyal, or abusive language about the form of the Government of the United States or to … advocate any curtailment of the production of the things essential to the prosecution of the war."
In the course of the war, an old term but with a new meaning sprang into widespread use — slacker. It had a completely different meaning than today. Prior to the war, it was a nautical term that described a slow–moving current.
The term slacker now applied to those whose actions were deemed unpatriotic. If a man missed work in a plant that was vital to the war effort, he was deemed a slacker. If a fundraising drive was held and someone refused to contribute, he was called a slacker.
For instance, at Carpenter Steel in Philadelphia, Slacker Day was proclaimed where anyone who did not subscribe to the Red Cross drive was subjected to the wrath of his fellow coworkers.
One man who refused to contribute was met at the door, pinned down, and had a yellow stripe painted on his back. After he stood back up, he was blasted with a fire hose. Two other men who supposedly had not contributed to the drive were met with a sign that said, “There are two slackers here.” The two slackers were forced to contribute twice as much as they had claimed they had already contributed. Then their coworkers made both men kneel and kiss the flag.
In many cities, so-called “Loyalty Courts,” “Loyalty Leagues” or “Loyalty Bureaus” were established. Citizens who failed to “cooperate” were hauled before these extra-legal organizations. Failing to buy enough War Bonds (based on your perceived wealth) or making disparaging remarks about the government or the war was cause enough to be rounded up in “slacker wagons.”
In Oklahoma, citizens were required to sign a pledge card declaring their loyalty to the government. Failure to do so could land you in jail. Amazingly, Oklahoma exceeded its quota during all four War Bond drives!
Some of these quasi-legal organizations employed secret agents who spied on their neighbors and friends and then reported violators to the court. Other jurisdictions hired actual detectives who assessed the ability of every man to buy War Bonds. If a man refused, he was turned over to the defense council to “adjust” matters; remarkably, they had very little difficulty in convincing the man to pony up money for the war effort.
Those who did not appear before these “courts” faced other punishment — beatings from leather straps, tar and feathering, or being painted with a yellow stripe down their back.
Overall, more than 2,000 people were arrested under the Sedition Act. In Montana, 76 men and three women were convicted. Some were sentenced up to 20 years in prison.
Despite this blatant assault on free speech, the Supreme Court routinely upheld the convictions of those who violated the Sedition Act. In one of those cases, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes not only upheld the conviction but wrote, “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre.”