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Mass Arrests Likely at Political Conventions: 6 Historical Precedents

Clinton's law designates political conventions National Special Security Events, a category of state security that virtually dooms the exercise of First Amendment Rights.

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2. WWI Red Scare. J. Edgar Hoover started his career waging war against subversives, serving as an able assistant to U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer during the infamous Red Scare of 1919-1920. Under Palmer’s direction, U.S. agents arrested and detained an estimated 10,000 suspects for alleged subversion; 556 were deported, including Emma Goldman.

The Red Scare grew out of a series of repressive federal legislature that reflected World War I hysteria. The U.S. entered World War I in April 1917. In June, Congress passed the Espionage Act that criminalized what was interpreted as acts of interference in foreign policy and espionage. "Espionage” was a very inexact if elastic category, however, including the publication of materials critical of the government. Punishment ranged from stiff fines to 20-year prison terms for anyone who obstructed the draft or encouraged “disloyalty” against the U.S. government.

The Anarchist Exclusion Act – aka the Immigration Act of 1917 – allowed federal authorities to detain and deport foreign-born anarchists, antiwar protesters and members of radical labor unions (e.g., the IWW). Most clever, the Act made deportations an administrative procedures rather than a due process procedure, thus side-stepping the courts and the Constitution.

The Sedition Act of 1918 was really an amendment to the 1917 Espionage Act. It criminalized four expressions of “free speech”: (i) utterances conveying false statements that interfere with the U.S. war effort; (ii) employing "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the American government, the Constitution, the flag or U.S. military or naval forces; (iii) encouraging strikes or other actions that curtailed the production of war material; and (iv) advocating, teaching, defending or suggesting the doing of any of the above acts. The law was aimed at curbing political dissent, targeting socialists, anarchists, pacifists and radical labor leaders. Approximately 3,600 people were arrested under the Sedition Act. (The Supreme Court upheld the Constitutionality of the Sedition Act; Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously dissented.)

Congress passed an earlier Sedition Act in 1798. It gave the president the power to expel “dangerous” aliens; to arrest, detain and deport resident aliens hailing from enemy countries during times of war; and to silence criticism of government policy. If the arrest and deportation of thousands was not bad enough, in 1919 the House of Representatives refused to seat an elected representative, Victor L. Berger from Wisconsin, because he was a self-proclaimed socialist of German ancestry and held antiwar views.

3. WWI “Prostitute” Roundups. In 1918, following the country’s entry into WWI, Congress passed the Chamberlain-Kahn Act giving the federal government the power to quarantine any woman suspected of having venereal disease for the “protection of the military and naval forces of the United States.” It required that a woman undergo a medical test to determine her status with regard to venereal diseases. At this historical moment, neither a scientifically valid diagnosis nor a medically approved treatment for VD was available. The Act allotted $1 million for a “civilian quarantine and isolation fund.”

The act was prompted by two critical factors. First, syphilis was an epidemic throughout the country; in 1916, an estimated 400,000 prostitutes died from it. Second, there was a high rate of VD infection among American military recruits; an estimated one-third of the men joining the service were infected with syphilis or gonorrhea.

Unescorted and single women were seized in periodic roundups, often on city streets, in public parks or outside military camps. An estimated 30,000 women were seized in local roundups. Some of these women were indeed prostitutes, while others simply teenage girls attracted to the glamor of soldiers going off to war or "charity girls" who had sex in exchange for meals or entertainment. They were designated “domestic enemies,” accused of undermining the war effort.

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