Professor Sam Lebovic has been awarded a prestigious and highly competitive Public Scholars Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The award will enable him to complete work on a new book on the history of the Espionage Act.
Passed in 1917, the Espionage Act was deployed to prosecute political dissidents during World War I. This overt form of censorship produced a civil libertarian backlash that helped create the modern First Amendment. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous free speech metaphors – “shouting fire in a crowded theater;” “the free trade in ideas” – were both issued in Espionage Act cases in 1919. Until now, most histories of the Espionage Act have focused on this triumphalist story.
By contrast, Lebovic’s book will demonstrate that the rising respect for free speech rights was accompanied by the growth of other forms of censorship, as the U.S. security state increasingly relied on more obscure sections of the Espionage Act to police information. Under President Truman, these provisions provided a key mechanism for securing a system of national security classification enforced by the prosecution of leakers. While subsequent administrations have tinkered with the classification system – and while complaints about over-classification have been ubiquitous since the 1950s – the basic system remains unchanged since 1951. This bureaucratic, obscure, and technical form of censorship has significantly undermined the flow of information to the public.
More than a century after it was enacted in 1917, the Espionage Act plays an increasingly significant role in modern American politics. Espionage Act leak prosecutions, once rare, have become so regular that some speak of a “War on Whistleblowers.” The high-profile cases of Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, Reality Winner and Terry Albury have captured the headlines, testing the relationship between national security and civil liberties in modern American democracy.
The NEH Public Scholar grants support popular nonfiction books in the humanities, allowing scholars like Lebovic to conduct consequential research of interest to a broad audience.
August 26, 2021