While Clem Work travelled the state last fall promoting his book Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West, someone asked him what he hoped shedding light on the dark days of Montana’s sedition act would accomplish.
“I think I said some general things about how I hoped that examining the past would help us examine the present,” Work recalled as he accepted the 2006 Montana Free Press Award at a freedom of information conference in Helena on Saturday, April 29. “In my box of dreams I guess I hoped that maybe someday these people could be exonerated.”
Work’s dream was scheduled to come true on Wednesday, May 3, when Gov. Brian Schweitzer, for the first time in Montana history, planned to posthumously pardon all 78 Montanans convicted of sedition during World War I.
With the help of Work and UM law professor Jeff Renz, nine law students and three journalism students worked for months on the Sedition Project, digging through old court documents and archaic records in the basements of state offices, looking for evidence that would help identify the family members of those convicted more than 80 years ago.
Work said the pardon would be important to the 40 or so ancestors who planned to attend the ceremony because it would clear a black spot from their family names.
“From the families’ point of view it’s very important to come here and get that piece of paper in their hands,” he said.
Work has likened Montana’s sedition act to today’s USA PATRIOT Act, a likeness with which Schweitzer agrees.
“In fact so does the Montana Legislature,” Schweitzer said on Tuesday, noting that 85 percent of the state Legislature voted to pass a resolution opposing portions of the USA PATRIOT Act.
Schweitzer added that the pardoning of the 75 men and three women convicted of sedition would send a strong message about the importance of the First Amendment.
“We need to defend this country against evils domestic and abroad,” said Schweitzer. “Revoking people’s constitutional right to free speech is not a good place to start.”