Sedition is the crime of revolting or inciting revolt against government. However, because of the broad protection of free speech under the First Amendment, prosecutions for sedition are rare. Nevertheless, sedition remains a crime in the United States under 18 U.S.C.A. § 2384 (2000), a federal statute that punishes seditious conspiracy, and 18 U.S.C.A. § 2385 (2000), which outlaws advocating the overthrow of the federal government by force. Generally, a person may be punished for sedition only when he or she makes statements that create a Clear and Present Danger to rights that the government may lawfully protect (schenck v. united states, 249 U.S. 47, 39 S. Ct. 247, 63 L. Ed. 470 ).
The crime of seditious conspiracy is committed when two or more persons in any state or U.S. territory conspire to levy war against the U.S. government. A person commits the crime of advocating the violent overthrow of the federal government when she willfully advocates or teaches the overthrow of the government by force, publishes material that advocates the overthrow of the government by force, or organizes persons to overthrow the government by force. A person found guilty of seditious conspiracy or advocating the overthrow of the government may be fined and sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. States also maintain laws that punish similar advocacy and conspiracy against the state government.
Governments have made sedition illegal since time immemorial. The precise acts that constitute sedition have varied. In the United States, Congress in the late eighteenth century believed that government should be protected from “false, scandalous and malicious” criticisms. Toward this end, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, which authorized the criminal prosecution of persons who wrote or spoke falsehoods about the government, Congress, the president, or the vice president. The act was to expire with the term of President John Adams.
The Sedition Act failed miserably. Thomas Jefferson opposed the act, and after he was narrowly elected president in 1800, public opposition to the act grew. The act expired in 1801, but not before it was used by President Adams to prosecute numerous public supporters of Jefferson, his challenger in the presidential election of 1800. One writer, Matthew Lyon, a congressman from Vermont, was found guilty of seditious libel for stating, in part, that he would not be the “humble advocate” of the Adams administration when he saw “every consideration of the public welfare swallowed up in a continual grasp for power, in an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and selfish avarice” (Lyon’s Case, 15 F. Cas. 1183 [D. Vermont 1798] [No. 8646]). Vermont voters reelected Lyon while he was in jail. Jefferson, after winning the election and assuming office, pardoned all persons convicted under the act.
In the 1820s and 1830s, as the movement to abolish Slavery grew in size and force in the South, Southern states began to enact seditious libel laws. Most of these laws were used to prosecute persons critical of slavery, and they were abolished after the Civil War. The federal government was no less defensive; Congress enacted seditious conspiracy laws before the Civil War aimed at persons advocating secession from the United States. These laws were the precursors to the present-day federal seditious conspiracy statutes.
In the late nineteenth century, Congress and the states began to enact new limits on speech, most notably statutes prohibiting Obscenity. At the outset of World War I, Congress passed legislation designed to suppress antiwar speech. The Espionage Act of 1917 (ch. 30, tit. 1, § 3, 40 Stat. 219), as amended by ch. 75, § 1, 40 Stat 553, put a number of pacifists into prison. Socialist leader eugene v. debs was convicted for making an antiwar speech in Canton, Ohio (Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211, 39 S. Ct. 252, 63 L. Ed. 566 ). Charles T. Schenck and Elizabeth Baer were convicted for circulating to military recruits a leaflet that advocated opposition to the draft and suggested that the draft violated the Thirteenth Amendment’s ban on Involuntary Servitude (Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 39 S. Ct. 247, 63 L. Ed. 470 ).
The U.S. Supreme Court did little to protect the right to criticize the government until after 1927. That year, Justice louis d. brandeis wrote an influential concurring opinion in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 47 S. Ct. 641, 71 L. Ed. 1095 (1927), that was to guide First Amendment Jurisprudence for years to come. In Whitney the High Court upheld the convictions of political activists for violation of federal anti-syndicalism laws, or laws that prohibit the teaching of crime. In his concurring opinion, Brandeis maintained that even if a person advocates violation of the law, “it is not a justification for denying free speech where the advocacy falls short of incitement and there is nothing to indicate that the advocacy would be immediately acted on.” Beginning in the 1930s, the Court became more protective of political free speech rights.
The High Court has protected the speech of racial supremacists and separatists, labor organizers, advocates of racial Integration, and opponents of the draft for the Vietnam War. However, it has refused to declare unconstitutional all sedition statutes and prosecutions. In 1940, to silence radicals and quell Nazi or communist subversion during the burgeoning Second World War, Congress enacted the Smith Act (18 U.S.C.A. §§ 2385, 2387), which outlawed sedition and seditious conspiracy. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act in Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 71 S. Ct. 857, 95 L. Ed. 1137 (1951).
Sedition prosecutions are extremely rare, but they do occur. Shortly after the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, the federal government prosecuted Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, a blind Egyptian cleric living in New Jersey, and nine codefendants on charges of seditious conspiracy. Rahman and the other defendants were convicted of violating the seditious conspiracy statute by engaging in an extensive plot to wage a war of Terrorism against the United States. With the exception of Rahman, they all were arrested while mixing explosives in a garage in Queens, New York, on June 24, 1993.
The defendants committed no overt acts of war, but all were found to have taken substantial steps toward carrying out a plot to levy war against the United States. The government did not have sufficient evidence that Rahman par ticipated in the actual plotting against the government or any other activities to prepare for terrorism. He was instead prosecuted for pro viding religious encouragement to his cocon spirators. Rahman argued that he only performed the function of a cleric and advised followers about the rules of Islam. He and the others were convicted, and on January 17, 1996, Rahman was sentenced to life imprisonment by Judge Michael Mukasey.
Following the September 11th Attacks of 2001, the federal government feared that terrorist networks were very real threats, and that if left unchecked, would lead to further insurrection. As a result, Congress enacted the Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-56, 115 Stat. 272. Among other things, the act increases the president’s authority to seize the property of individuals and organizations that the president determines have planned, authorized, aided, or engaged in hostilities or attacks against the United States.
The events of September 11 also led to the conviction of at least one American. In 2001, U.S. officials captured John Philip Walker Lindh, a U.S. citizen who had trained with terrorist organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Lindh, who became known as the “American Taliban,” was indicted on ten counts, including conspiracy to murder U.S. nationals. In October 2002, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Cohan, John Alan. 2003. “Seditious Conspiracy, the Smith Act, and Prosecution for Religious Speech Advocating the Violent Overthrow of Government.” St. John’s Journal of Legal Commentary 17 (winter-spring).
Curtis, Michael Kent. 1995. “Critics of ‘Free Speech’ and the Uses of the Past.” Constitutional Commentary 12 (spring).——. 1995. “The Curious History of Attempts to Suppress Antislavery Speech, Press, and Petition in 1835–37.” Northwestern University Law Review 89 (spring).
Downey, Michael P. 1998. “The Jeffersonian Myth in Supreme Court Sedition Jurisprudence.” Washington University Law Quarterly 76 (summer).
Gibson, Michael T. 1986. “The Supreme Court and Freedom of Expression from 1791 to 1917.” Fordham Law Review 55 (December).
Grinstein, Joseph. 1996. “Jihad and the Constitution: The First Amendment Implications of Combating Religiously Motivated Terrorism.” Yale Law Journal 105 (March).
Levinson, Nan. 2003. Outspoken: Free Speech Stories. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Weintraub, Leonard. 1987. “Crime of the Century: Use of the Mail Fraud Statute Against Authors.” Boston University Law Review 67 (May).