Thursday, May 04, 2006

Mont. Governor Pardons 78 in Sedition Case

Unfortunately, a pardon will never come for Mollie Steimer & friends. HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- For casually saying that American troops were ''getting a good licking'' in France during World War I, a blacksmith named August Lambrecht was imprisoned for seven months in 1919. After being released, he and his wife fled Montana for fear of being imprisoned again. He died in Portland, Ore., in 1957 -- unable to outrun his conviction for sedition. It was a black mark his family felt was grossly unfair. ''This is America,'' said his great-grandson, David Gabriel. ''Having freedom of speech and saying what is on your mind doesn't make you a criminal and it shouldn't.'' Gabriel joined about 40 family members at a ceremony Wednesday where the governor signed pardons for nearly 80 people convicted of sedition amid the war's anti-German hysteria. Gov. Brian Schweitzer said the state was ''about 80 years too late'' in pardoning the mostly working-class people of German descent who were convicted of breaking what was then one of the harshest sedition laws in the nation. ''This should have been done a long time ago,'' said Schweitzer, the son of German immigrants. They were the first posthumous pardons in Montana history. The list of those pardoned included farmers, butchers, carpenters and cooks. One man was charged merely for calling the conflict a ''rich man's war'' and mocking food regulations during a time of rationing. Keith Sime's uncle, Herman Bausch, was a pacifist who refused to buy war bonds and spent 28 months in prison for being outspoken about it. Sime said it was important for the state to finally recognize the injustice.
A total of 76 men and three women were convicted of sedition. They were imprisoned for an average of 19 months, often based on casual comments made in saloons. At the time, profane language or insulting the virtues of women usually resulted in a longer sentence. One man was previously pardoned; 78 received pardons Wednesday. Journalism professor Clem Work of the University of Montana said many were turned in by friends, acquaintances or in some cases by people jealous of their land holdings. ''Today's a day of redemption and redress, helping the families put closure to the wounds and at the same time make an affirmative statement for free speech,'' said Work. While some of the comments seem shockingly benign, others were less so. But even those who cussed the president and the flag should not be considered criminals, said Work, whose book, ''Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West,'' inspired law students at the university to write petitions for the pardons and help find family members. ''These people merely expressed their opinions and made derogatory or critical remarks about the U.S., the war, the soldiers or the flag,'' he said. Under Montana's sedition law, it was illegal to make ''any disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous, slurring or abusive'' comment about the Constitution, the federal government, soldiers or sailors, the flag or the uniforms of the Army or Navy. Laws at the time even made it illegal to speak German. Schweitzer said his grandmother was not allowed to speak the only language she knew while out in public.

Law student Katie Olson, who worked on the project, said shedding light on the case is not enough. ''The lessons are meaningless unless we learn from them,'' she said. ''It is never too late to learn the lessons history wants to teach us.''

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