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Sedition and the University of Nebraska’s Professors’ Trial by Frank Edler

David Wiltse’s play Sedition (2007) is based on a trial that took place in the Law Building of the University of Nebraska in 1918. In the actual trial, eleven professors and one staff member were accused of disloyalty by the Nebraska State Council of Defense. No trial like it happened at any other university during the war. For nearly a year after the U. S. declared war against Germany, the State Council, relying on anti-German hysteria, pressured the university to fire any employee who exhibited “negative, halting or hesitating” behavior in support of the government. Being “passively loyal” was not acceptable; every university employee was expected to be “100% American.” The regents decided that a public trial would be preferable to summary firings. The trial began on May 28 and lasted nearly two weeks. On June 19, the regents who functioned as the jury, rendered their verdict.

Andrew D. Schrag, Wiltse’s grandfather and a professor of German, was one of the twelve initially accused of disloyalty.  On the third day of the trial, the lawyers for the State Council who had not drawn up the charges, realized that the evidence presented did not support the charge of “active disloyalty” and reverted back to the charge of “passive loyalty,” that is,  behavior that was negative, halting, or hesitating in support of the government. Most of the evidence proved to be hearsay or statements made before America entered the war. Students testified for and against professors; professors testified for and against each other. Chancellor Avery returned from his work in Washington to take the stand. His lack of support for some professors most likely sealed their fate, especially George W. Luckey, dean of the Graduate School of  Education, and Clark E. Persinger, associate professor of American history.

Since the State Council had dropped the charge of disloyalty, the board of regents claimed that the university was completely loyal; however, they fired five professors: Luckey and Persinger were fired because they were involved in disputes with the local press and thus no longer considered “useful” to the university; Erwin P. Hopt, professor of agronomy, was fired because he was an absolute pacifist. Finally, Fred M. Fling, head of the European history department, and Minnie Throop England, assistant professor of economics, both of whom were  aggressively patriotic, were fired for spreading false rumors about faculty. Since Fling and England were not part of the trial, the regents allowed them to plead their case before the board. They did and the board reinstated them. Their reinstatement was allowed because although the board reprimanded them for spreading false rumors, the board agreed that they had not done so intentionally. Schrag was completely exonerated, but he never returned to the university.