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Montana Law Students Try to Right an Old Wrong

  • Hope Stockwell

In Montana, a group of law school students is trying to overturn what they believe is a nearly century-old case of injustice. During World War I, the United States was on high-alert for spies and conspirators. Many states passed sedition laws. Montana's was one of the harshest.

About 80 people were convicted in that western state for either voicing an opinion against the United States, or in support of Germany. The law that put them in prison went off the books after the war ended, and by 1922, all the convicts were released, whether or not they'd served their full sentence. But the law students are seeking posthumous pardons to officially clear the names of those who were convicted.

Katie Olson is spending the last few weeks of her law school career digging through old legal files. Right now, she's examining clemency records from the 1920s kept in the bowels of a state warehouse in Montana's capital city, Helena.

"I'm two levels below ground and I'm surrounded by boxes upon boxes," she says, indicating the towering piles around her, "all the way up to the ceiling."

Olson pulls out the small, grey boxes one-by-one...looking for any mention of Austrian immigrant Josef Hocevar. He was a miner, who at age 52 was sentenced to six-to-twelve years in prison for sedition. Hocevar is the only one of the nearly 80 Montanans convicted known to have been later pardoned. Olson believes the others should be exonerated too, because she says they were simply stating their opinions about the war, not inciting rebellion. She hopes to use information from Hocevar's clemency record to strengthen the petitions for their pardons.

However, following Hocevar's paper trail is a lesson in patience and old-fashioned, pre-Internet research. "The problem is not all the records are kept in the same place," she explains, adding "I didn't even know this place existed. We had begun looking for this specific record back in December. And I just got an email two weeks ago that maybe there was something here we could find. Of course, now it's just a matter of digging through everything."

Olson's efforts are much appreciated by Phyllis Rolf. Her grandfather, Frederick Rodewald, was a German immigrant and homesteader, with nine children. He was convicted of sedition after he allegedly said the Germans would defeat America when they reached U.S. shores. But, she says, she's proud of him. "This little man withstood two years of pure hell in prison for nothing. And why? What's the reason behind it? I don't know."

It was "a climate of fear and hysteria that had been drummed up in part by the U.S. and state governments," according to University of Montana journalism professor Clem Work. He 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 office.

He says their 'crimes' were usually made under the influence of alcohol. "Many of the remarks these people made I would be embarrassed to repeat because they were filled with obscenities. They were often drunken outbursts in saloons, drunken comments, idle boasts, but they were in essence all opinions about the war or derogatory statements about the military or the president but that was the extent of it."

Work says state and federal sedition and espionage laws at the time encouraged neighbors to spy on neighbors. As a result, he says, 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 the state's history. "It's unfortunate that folks lost their families, everything they own, 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." He says he'll carefully review the petition papers prepared by Katie Olson and her fellow law students, to determine if each person was wrongfully convicted and, as he puts it, "there were no true rascals in the bunch."

Phyllis Rolf, for one, can't wait. "It would mean that it was over," she says, her voice choking with emotion. "And it's not hanging over the family anymore."

Rolf plans to travel from her home in Minnesota to attend a pardoning ceremony at the Montana State Capitol, which is expected to be held in April.

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