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April 26, 2010

There was an interesting moment on MSNBC last week where Joe Klein, a journalist, said

I looked up the definition of sedition which is conduct or language inciting rebellion against the authority of the state. And a lot of these statements, especially the ones coming from people like Glenn Beck and to a certain extent Sarah Palin, rub right up close to being seditious

While I’m glad a journalist can use the dictionary, the important thing is not the general dictionary definition but rather the use of the concept in the United States. Because of the abuse in England of the concepts of “treason” and “sedition” our Constitution grants us freedom of speech in the First Amendment–exactly the thing we need when people like Klein question our speech.

Historically, first abuse of sedition was in the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. (Didn’t take long did it?) The Archiving Early America site has a good, short summary of all the acts. The Sedition Act “declared that any treasonable activity, including the publication of “any false, scandalous and malicious writing,” was a high misdemeanor, punishable by fine and imprisonment.”

War with France was a possibility and the Federalists, then in power, used the law to arrest 25 newspaper editors who were Republicans. When Republican Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, they were pardoned. The Federalist party no longer exists–one might say we are all big government federalists now–and Jefferson’s Democratic Republican party is today the Democratic Party.

Today Democrats like Joe Klein and Bill Clinton are floating the idea that speaking out against government policy is “sedition.”

In 1798, it had to be “false, scandalous and malicious” to be seditious and even that much was of dubious constitutionality. The act expired in 1801 and so the issue was not taken to the Supreme Court–which in any case did not rule on the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress until 1803. Despite that, in a concurring opinion in Watts v. United States, which involved an alleged threat against President Lyndon Johnson, William O. Douglas noted, “The Alien and Sedition Laws constituted one of our sorriest chapters; and I had thought we had done with them forever … Suppression of speech as an effective police measure is an old, old device, outlawed by our Constitution.”

Apparently we are not yet finished with threats to free speech.


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