Posthumous Pardons for Montana's WWI Seditionists

A group of law students is seeking posthumous pardons for Montana residents convicted of sedition during World War I. The men were convicted under the state's Sedition Act, then considered the harshest in the nation. Hope Stockwell of member station KUFM reports on the pardon project.

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It's DAY TO DAY, from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams. In Montana, there's a group of law school students trying to overturn what they believe is a near-century old case of injustice. During the First World War, the United States was on high alert for spies, and many states, including Montana, passed sedition laws. Montana's were some of the harshest, and about 80 people were convicted for either voicing their opinion against the U.S., or for speaking in favor of Germany. The law is long gone, but the law students want to officially clear the names of many who were convicted. Montana Public Radio's Hope Stockwell has a report.

HOPE STOCKWELL reporting:

University of Montana student Katy Olson is spending the last few weeks of her law school career digging through old legal files. Right now, she's digging through clemency records kept in the bowels of the state records warehouse in Helena, Montana.

Ms. KATY OLSON (Law Student, University of Montana): I'm two levels below ground, and I'm surrounded by boxes upon boxes, all the way up to the ceiling.

STOCKWELL: Olson pulls out the small gray boxes, one by one, looking for any hint of Austrian immigrant Josef Hostivar. He was a miner, who at age 52, was sentenced to 6 to 12 years in prison for sedition. Hostivar is the one person known to have been later pardoned. Olson believes the others should be pardoned, too, because she says they were simply stating their opinions about the war, not inciting rebellion. She hopes to use information from Hostivar's clemency record to strengthen the petitions for the others' pardons. However, following Hostivar's paper trail is a lesson in patience and old-fashioned, pre-internet research.

Ms. OLSON: The problem is that not all the records are kept in the same place, as you can see. I mean, I didn't even know this place existed, and we had begun looking for this specific record back in December, and I just got an e-mail two weeks ago that maybe there was something here that we could find, but, of course, now it's just a matter of digging through everything.

STOCKWELL: Though tedious, Olson's effort is much appreciated by Phyllis Rolfe. Her grandfather, Frederick Rodewald, was a German immigrant and homesteader. He had nine children when he was convicted of sedition. He allegedly said the Germans would defeat America when they got to the U.S.

Ms. PHYLLIS ROLFE: I'm proud of my grandfather. This little man withstood two years of pure hell in prison for nothing. Why? What's the reasoning behind it? I don't know.

Professor CLEM WORK (Journalism, University of Montana): It was a climate of fear and hysteria that had been drummed up, in part, by the U.S. and the state governments.

STOCKWELL: University of Montana journalism professor, Clem Work, is the author of Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West, the book that prompted the pardon project. Black-and-white mug shots of Frank Rodewald, and others convicted of sedition, hang above the desk in Work's Missoula office.

Professor WORK: Many of the remarks that these people made, I would be embarrassed to repeat, because they contained, you know, obscenities. They were often drunken outbursts in saloons. They were just offhand comments, idle boasts, but they were--in essence, they were all, basically, opinions about the war, or derogatory statements about the military, or perhaps the President, but that was the extent of it.

STOCKWELL: Work says state and federal sedition and espionage laws encouraged neighbors to spy on neighbors. As a result, he said some remarks were blown out of proportion, and others were completely made up, as a form of retribution for another perceived wrong. Many immigrants of German and Austro-Hungarian descent became targets. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer says it was a dark time in history.

Governor BRIAN SCHWEITZER (Democrat, Montana): It's unfortunate that folks had lost their families. They'd lost everything they owned. They had lost even their own self-respect. These were good, God-fearing people. They didn't come here to be seditious. They came here to stake out a new way of life.

STOCKWELL: Schweitzer says he'll carefully review the petition papers prepared by Katy Olson and other law students, to make sure each person was wrongfully convicted, and as he puts it, there were no true rascals in the bunch. Phyllis Rolfe, for one, can't wait.

Ms. ROLFE: It would mean that it was over, and it's not hanging over the family any more.

STOCKWELL: Rolfe plans to travel from her home in Minnesota to attend a pardoning ceremony at the Montana State Capitol, which is expected in April. For NPR News, in Helena, Montana, I'm Hope Stockwell.

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