For the past year, the Obama administration, unable to win arguments based on facts and merit, has been moving to criminalize the political opposition in an effort to artificially control the debate. First, the DHS published reports classifying conservative viewpoints as terroristic. Then hate crimes legislation was introduced to squash religious speech regarding sexual deviancy. And finally, Regulatory Czar Cass Sunstein claimed the power to ban “falsehoods,” an infraction Sunstein in his infinite nonpartisan wisdom would define and determine. And now, the ultimate political A-bomb has been introduced into the public discourse: the charge of sedition.
That was the charge against Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin from Time Magazine’s Joe Klein. “Sedition” is a historically loaded word, since it is primarily associated with the jailing of political opponents and has traditionally been hard to identify. Those in power usually wield the “sedition” slur as a bludgeon against anyone who stands in the way of their agenda, whatever that may be.
But due to the fact that so-called sedition is so frequently associated with issues of free speech, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has ruled numerous times that anti-sedition laws are unconstitutional. Translation: Sedition is constitutional.
Anti-government sentiment is an American tradition. Some would even say that questioning the government and the sincerity of government policies is part of healthy democratic life. In fact, we should be skeptical of those who wish to stifle this sentiment. The Declaration of Independence even defends the idea of a “right to alter or abolish” the government. This is the famous right to revolution. Although lawyers have squabbled over the precise meaning of the words “alter or abolish,” and certainly no one wants to see mob-led anarchy, this much is clear: In America, government does not rule subjects. “We the people” rule the government, and government serves at our will. We do not owe the president or members of Congress unquestioning loyalty. That kind of loyalty is the hallmark of another system defeated in two world wars, one hot and one cold.
In America, whenever government becomes destructive to its primary purpose, it must be replaced. And what is the primary purpose of government? The Declaration of Independence enlightens:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
“That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men …” How far have we strayed from that maxim?
There were three major Sedition Acts historically: one passed during the Adams administration in the later part of the 18th century, one passed during WWI, and one passed during the FDR administration. Although the 1940 Smith Act is still on the books, all of these statutes have been nullified by the Supreme Court.
In Yates v. United States, the SCOTUS ruled that citizens could even go as far as to advocate the forceful overthrow of the United States government (as long as these discussions were passive in nature.) This case dealt with Communist subversives, a paradigm much more detrimental to the system by which Americans are governed than the much-hyped tea party movement, which simply seeks a return to constitutionally limited government.
Additional cases include New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and Watts v. United States. Although the Sedition Acts expired some years before these cases were decided, the wording is useful. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the SCOTUS declared, “Although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history.” In Watts v. United States, Justice William O. Douglas concurred: “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.” And finally, Watkins v. United States held that those accused under the Smith Act could rely upon the First Amendment as defense, holding that “[a] congressional investigation is subject to the command that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or press or assembly.” This last case was especially relevant during the so-called Red Scare, when hundreds of suspected Communists were the left’s cherished victims of America’s own show trials.
This history reveals that, apart from cases where incitement can be shown, using the word “sedition” against political enemies is out of place in a free country. Any American may oppose government policies without advocating the violent overthrow of the entire political system. Those who capriciously bandy about terms like “sedition” are knowingly committing an act of slander, since the charge of sedition requires the intent to upset law and order, a motivation nowhere present in the political movement collectively referred to as the “tea party.”
There are the occasional nuts on both ends of the political spectrum, but to tar half of America with such a firebrand word is to engage in willful deception and intimidation — especially in cases like that of alleged offender Glenn Beck, who is on record promoting nonviolence.
Bottom line: If debates cannot be won based on the strength of arguments, and it becomes necessary to engage in threats and ad hominem attacks, then the debate has already been lost by whoever resorts to these lowbrow devices. Maybe Cass Sunstein should spend some time examining the “falsehoods” emanating from members of his own party, like Nancy Pelosi’s decision to stop just short of calling conservative Americans Nazis. It is remarkable that we live in a time when the Speaker of the House can impugn her own constituents with the crudest label known to man and escape serious consequences.
The Obama administration and its journalistic allies must not be allowed to succeed in their goal of silencing free speech for short-term political gain. American freedom is too precious to allow it to be molested by those who would stoop to such dangerous name-calling.