Two weeks after the 1917 U.S. declaration of war on Germany, Lewiston, a small town in Montana, had a parade. Less than a year later, 500 Lewiston residents burned a stack of German textbooks in the middle of Main Street and sang "America" and the "Star-Spangled Banner."
In 1918, Montana passed a harsh sedition bill that punished anyone who criticized the government during wartime or incited resistance with a fine of up to $20,000 or up to 20 years in prison.
This act pushed propaganda and patriotism to the forefront of the state media and local gossip circles. The climate of fear and hysteria brought on by war and emergency mandated Americans to be divided into two distinct groups: patriots and traitors.
In "Darkest Before Dawn," (University of New Mexico Press), journalism scholar Clemens P. Work explains how happenings in Montana led to the first national recognition of the importance of free speech — a timely topic given war-time concerns and the square-off between individual freedoms and government intrusion.
"Darkest Before Dawn" chronicles Montana's persecution of German "sympathizers" as U.S. patriotism was perverted amid wartime fervor. Work employs the microcosm of Montana to speculate on how freedom of speech can become endangered during war. By providing background on labor party organization in the U.S., illustrating the ever-growing gaps in the division of wealth and scouring historical archives for case studies, Work provides readers with compelling stories of the victims of citizen hysteria and government repression.
Specifically, "Darkest Before Dawn" looks at the development of the Industrial Workers of the World and the group's relationship with corporate powers like the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, Montana's largest — and most political — company. Work also explores the media's approval of persecution of the dissenters, the plight of both citizens and news editors found guilty of sedition and the ramifications of U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Whitney v. California.
Work hopes to shed light on a turbulent period that can teach us lessons about free speech today.
"By focusing on this darkest period in America's history, it is my hope that certain truths may become self-evident: That freedom of expression is indeed the bulwark of our liberty, that its exercise is crucial to democratic self-governance and ultimately to the pursuit of happiness and that we alone can preserve it," Works writes.
"By looking in this dark mirror, when our freedoms were under siege, we can see ourselves as we once were and as we might become."
Clemens P. Work is director of graduate studies and a professor of media law at the University of Montana School of Journalism in Missoula. He received a B.A. from Stanford University in political science and international relations in 1966 and J.D. from Golden State University in San Francisco in 1975.
His journalism career includes 10 years of reporting for the daily newspapers in California and Colorado, as well as nine years at U.S. News & World Report, where he was senior editor writing on issues of deregulation, business and global competition. Before going to U.S. News & World Report, he was assistant director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington.