Some 200 people were arrested, and approximately 125 people went to trial under the Montana Sedition Law, which criminalized nearly everything said or written against the American government and its conduct when it passed in February 1918.
The penalties--a maximum of 10-to-20 years in prison and up to a $20,000 fine--were tough, and the pressure on “disloyal” citizens was relentless. The vast majority of people were rounded up for casual statements, off-the-cuff remarks deemed pro-German or anti-American. Citizens turned against one another, joining “patriotic” organizations like the Montana Loyalty League with its stated goal of keeping the Treasure State from “going over body and soul to the Kaiser.
Montana’s law fortified the restrictions in the Espionage Act, which Congress passed with the full support of the Woodrow Wilson administration in June 1917, two months after America entered World War I. It was intended to root out saboteurs, making it a crime to interfere with U.S. war efforts or to promote the country’s enemies, but that wasn’t enough for Montana. Paranoia rippled across the state, fueled by newspapers like the Billings Gazettefeaturing an October column asking: Are the Germans about the bomb the capital of Montana? Have they spies in the mountain fastnesses equipped with wireless stations and aeroplanes? Do our enemies fly around our high mountains where formerly only the shadow of the eagle swept?