The Return of Sedition


“The whole aim of practical politics,” wrote famed journalist H. L. Mencken, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Truer words were never spoken, which begs important questions:  Will our “War on Terror” ever end?  Will our need for national security ever diminish?  Most likely not, as Washington is always on the lookout for more ways to protect us from our “enemies.”  As Vice President Biden told recent graduates at West Point, “Prepare for new threats.”

But new laws designed for our safety threaten to reach deeper and deeper into our private lives with more intrusive surveillance, as many in our government have taken to heart words attributed to Cicero, “In times of war, the law falls silent.”

Last year Congress overwhelmingly passed a National Defense Authorization Act that contained a very dangerous and very vague provision, Section 1021, that would allow for the indefinite detention of anyone, including American citizens, who are members or offer “support” to terror groups currently waging war against the United States.  All due process rights would be stripped away.  No trial.  No judge.  No jury of your peers.  Terror suspects will be held by the US military for as long as the government deems necessary.

Sedition is legally defined as “an agreement, communication, or other preliminary activity aimed at inciting treason or some lesser commotion against public authority.”  With the passage of this law, the slightest suspicion on the part of the government, real or imagined, could land some of us permanently in the slammer with no opportunity to defend ourselves.

Sadly, Americans have seen this song and dance before, during the dark days of the John Adams administration, in the darker days of the War to Prevent Southern Independence, and again during Wilson’s war to make the world safe for Democracy.

In 1798 Congress passed the Sedition Act, which criminalized speech against the federal government, coming just seven years after ratification of the Bill of Rights.  Citizens were arrested for stating their dislike of President Adams and newspaper editors were thrown in prison for printing stories critical of the government.  The rise of the Jeffersonians in 1800 ended the abuses.

During Lincoln’s war on the South, Congressman Clement Vallandigham of Ohio, an anti-war Democrat in the midst of a campaign for governor, harshly criticized the regime and was arrested in the dead of night by federal troops and banished to the Confederacy.  As many as 14,000 citizens were arrested and imprisoned without trial throughout the North for various offenses deemed threatening to Washington.

A recent Hollywood film, The Conspirator, depicts one of the most atrocious episodes of that period.  Directed by Robert Redford, it examines the case of Mary Surratt, who owned the boardinghouse in Washington where John Wilkes Booth, John Surratt, and others conspired to first kidnap, then assassinate President Lincoln.  Mrs. Surratt was taken into custody by federal authorities, tried in a military tribunal, found guilty, sentenced to death, and hanged with four other conspirators.

The Lincoln regime placed the survival of the nation above the rights of the individual.  But the Supreme Court quashed what could have easily resulted in a true reign of terror on “disloyal” American citizens, though not in time to save Mrs. Surratt.

Lampdin P. Milligan conspired to free Confederate prisoners held in concentration camps in Indiana.  He was arrested and convicted by a military commission.  In 1866, the Court declared, in Ex Parte Milligan, by a vote of 9 to 0, that neither the President nor Congress could try civilians in military tribunals in areas remote from the actual theater of war where the civil courts were operating.  American citizens, the Court held, were entitled to a civilian trial with all the rights of due process.

During World War One, the government under Woodrow Wilson enacted the Sedition Act of 1918.  American citizens were arrested and jailed for such offenses as standing on street corners reading aloud the Bill of Rights.  In 1920, the triumphant Republicans dealt Wilson’s tyrannical regime a crippling blow.

Though Congress has not passed, nor, to our knowledge, even contemplated a new sedition law, that does not mean that the vagueness of Section 1021 of the NDAA could not be used for that purpose. Prominent liberals, including Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, have stated that criticism of President Obama is tantamount to sedition.  Recently in a high school in North Carolina, a teacher was caught on tape telling a student that criticism of Obama could put him in jail.

But it seems lovers of liberty won’t bow to the Obama regime.  A federal judge in New York recently imposed an injunction against Section 1021 and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on the government’s use of warrant-less wiretaps.

That is why the election of 2012 is so important.  Our constitutional republic hangs in the balance.

This column was published in the Laurel Leader Call (Laurel, Mississippi) on Tuesday, June 19, 2012.

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