The Sedition Act: The Bad Penny Returns

In much of what was formerly known as “the free world”, freedom is being dramatically curtailed by governments. Nowhere is this truer than in the US. I discussed the future of freedom of speech with an American recently. She postulated that it could never be taken from her, as she was assured freedom of speech under the Constitution. She’s correct in the latter part of her statement. Her Constitution clearly states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech.”

But as to the former part of her statement, that she could never have her freedom of speech removed is, I believe, entirely incorrect. Not only is her freedom of speech currently at risk, but this is nothing new in the US. The first suspension of this constitutional right came as early as 1798.

Post-Revolution

The Sedition Act of 1798 was passed by John Adams’ federalist government. It criminalised the making of statements that criticised the federal government. The Act was used by the Adams government to prosecute newspaper owners if they favoured the views of the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican Party.

One person who was attacked was David Brown, who was fined and imprisoned for publishing the words, “No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America.” Another was James Callender, who accused the president as a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor”.

Those who opposed the passage of the Act stated that it violated the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed the right to free speech. They were quite correct.

The Act was repealed when Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801. He pardoned those who had been imprisoned and repaid their fines. But the silencing of citizens did not end there. It returned a mere 60 years later.

The Civil War

In 1861, President Lincoln unilaterally suspended the writ of habeas corpus (the right to appear before a judge when accused of a crime). In essence, he ordered that persons could be arrested and held without bringing formal charges against them. The claimed purpose was to allow the government the ability to hold prisoners of war, but it was subsequently used to muzzle the press. Newspapers that criticised the president were closed for seditious behaviour and their editors arrested and imprisoned.

Over 14,000 civilians were arrested by the Lincoln administration. After the war, the suspension of the right to free speech was ended, but only until the next war.

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