HELENA, Mont. -- It took just two words to land Polish immigrant Ben Kahn in prison for nearly three years during World War I.
The 38-year-old traveling liquor salesman called wartime food regulations in the United States a "big joke" while talking with a Montana hotel owner as he waited for breakfast in March 1918.
By lunchtime, Kahn had been arrested for violating Montana's Sedition Act. Less than a month later, he was in prison in Deer Lodge, sentenced to 7 1/2 to 20 years.
Nearly 90 years later, law students at the University of Montana are combing old court records and archive collections across the state to clear Kahn and 73 other Montanans convicted of sedition in 1918 and 1919.
The effort, known as the "Montana Sedition Project," was sparked by University of Montana journalism professor Clem Work's new book, "Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West."
Seven law students are taking another look at the cases and hope to prepare pardon petitions for Gov. Brian Schweitzer this spring.
"The sedition law has no place in our society today," said Jason Lazark, 28, a law student from Sebastapol, Calif. "It's unconstitutional and was found to be that way. People who were convicted under that statute should be vindicated. And if they're not alive, the family name should be vindicated."
Phyllis Rolf, the granddaughter of convicted seditionist Fred Rodewald, said she broke down when she heard about the possibility of a pardon.
"I just want him to be free, like all the rest of them ... It should never have happened," Rolf, 60, said from her home in Atwater, Minn.
Rodewald, a German immigrant who settled with his family on 320 acres in eastern Montana, served two years in prison for suggesting in April 1918 that Americans "would have hard times" if Germany's kaiser "didn't get over here and rule this country."
He left behind a pregnant wife and eight children when he went to prison. Rolf said she had no idea about her grandfather's past until Work contacted her during his research.
Schweitzer, a Democrat whose grandparents were German-Russian immigrants, has read Work's book and appears interested in granting pardons if petitions are presented.
"Innocent people ... whether we can make [a difference] in their life or later, I think we ought to make it right," he said. "Some of this stuff is outrageous."
Montana's Sedition Act was passed by a special session of the legislature in 1918, but has since been repealed. It was one of the harshest in the country, Work said, and was the basis for a national sedition law passed by Congress the same year. An armistice ended the war later that year.
The laws sprang from a climate of mass panic and hysteria, in which German spies were feared around every corner and political dissidents were deemed a threat, Work said. German books were banned and burned, and preaching in German from church pulpits was forbidden.
"When the war came, all of those fears were ratcheted up," Work said.
Many of the law students said they were shocked by the number of farmers, miners and other blue-collar Montanans convicted of making anti-government statements, and the comments that landed them in prison.
The students plan to continue their research later this month after returning from winter break. The hardest part, they say, has been finding relatives of those who were charged. They're also researching the pardon process and other legal issues.
If nothing else, the students hope the project will make more people aware of what happened and reaffirm the importance of the right to free speech.
"You never know when those rights can be infringed on," said Katie Olson, 26, of Great Falls. "Even though this is something that happened almost 100 years ago, I definitely think it's still important."
On the Net: Sedition Project: http://www.seditionproject.net