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.

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?”

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.

Painting the tea party protesters or right-wing commentators as seditious, then, takes the nation a step back to a more restricted past, when dissent was criminalized. Dissent, not sedition, because whatever Klein might say, Beck and Palin are not advocating violent insurrection. Indeed, over the past few years Beck has repeatedly counseled his audience not to act violently.

The tea party protests that Beck and Palin support are not even particularly radical in their means. They argue for the ballot, not the bullet. They gather, mostly peaceably, for noisy but contained protests. And they don’t even challenge the two-party system: According to a recent New York Times poll, tea partyers are less likely than other Americans to support a third party.

So why the confusion? In part, debate about the tea parties is muddled by fringe actions that are, in fact, seditious. That actual seditious activity is occurring, though, is all the more reason to take care with the word, so we can recognize and deal with the real thing when it occurs.

Protesting outside Congress? Not seditious. Threatening Congress members’ lives? Seditious. Painting apocalyptic fairy tales, as Beck does? Not seditious. Planning an armed militia to ward off the federal government, as an Oklahoma tea party group was? Seditious.

This is not to say that Beck, Palin, and other tea party speakers are blameless. They may not be committing sedition, but their overheated, often stunningly fictional rhetoric doesn’t help matters. It may gin up their base, but intimating that President Obama may suspend elections or suggesting that the government is coming for Grandma makes meaningful debate difficult. Such talk sets up real barriers to solving the nation’s problems at a time when America can ill afford to spend time on unserious matters. But to equate over-the-top rhetoric with sedition goes too far: When it comes to weighing free speech versus sedition, we should err on the side of freedom.

Nor is the outrage emanating from the right in the wake of Klein’s comments wholly justified. Conservative commentators have cried sedition plenty of times, as when Michelle Malkin called Students Against War members seditious in 2006. And when a Veterans Affairs nurse criticized President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war and hurricane Katrina in a letter to the editor, she faced a sedition investigation for her legitimate opposition.

For Americans of every political stripe, then, the lesson is the same: Sedition is a serious charge for a serious act. We should retire it as a label for nonviolent political speech, however flawed.

Nicole Hemmer is a lecturer at Manchester College and a PhD candidate in history at Columbia University. She is writing a history of conservative media.

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