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Opinion

Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are not guilty of sedition -- but over-the-top 'tea-party' rhetoric doesn’t help

Overheated rhetoric from Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and other 'tea party' activists may create barriers to serious conversation, but it's not seditious. When it comes to weighing free speech versus sedition, we should err on the side of freedom.

By Nicole Hemmer / April 23, 2010



Charlottesville, Va.

Sedition. The word is all the rage as the nation commemorated the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing this week amid tumultuous times: a historic recession, massive deficits, nationwide “tea party” protests. As memories of the domestic terror attack resurface, critics of those tea party protests have shifted the debate from “racist or not?” to “seditious or not?”

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Joe Klein of Time magazine recently made headlines when he said that comments by tea party advocates Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin “rub right up close to being seditious.”

Mr. Klein later explained that their sedition sprang not from dissenting, but from questioning the administration’s legitimacy. But even clarified, Klein’s position is troubling. Mr. Beck, Ms. Palin, and the protesters they rally are not engaged in sedition, and in making the charge, Klein not only waters down the true meaning of sedition but legitimizes it as a weapon against political opponents.

In a democratic country dedicated to freedoms of speech and press, sedition – inciting rebellion against the state – presents a conundrum. Where does legitimate, protected opposition end and sedition begin?

Historically, the bar has been set pretty low: Speech protected today almost always amounted to sedition in years past. The Sedition Act of 1798 criminalized “malicious writing” against the government, in large part to tamp down criticism against President John Adams and the Federalist government. Under its provisions, Revolutionary War veteran David Brown spent 18 months in jail for erecting a sign denouncing the Sedition Act and supporting Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the right of revolution into the Declaration of Independence.

During World War I, a new Sedition Act helped dissuade antiwar activists and landed Socialist politician Eugene Debs in jail. Revealing Americans’ uneasiness with political prisoners, Debs was allowed to run for president from his cell, winning nearly a million votes. A generation later, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration saw sedition in the very DNA of Japanese-Americans, sending them to internment camps in the western deserts for the duration of World War II.

Sedition, then, has been broadly construed in America’s past. But with the rise of civil liberty protections in the last half of the 20th century, speech has been given much looser rein. Even the USA Patriot Act, which had any number of liberty-limiting provisions, rarely constrained freedoms of speech and press outright.

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