Nicole Hemmer: Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are Not Guilty of Sedition -- But Over-the-Top 'Tea-Party' Rhetoric Doesn’t Help





[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.]

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?”...

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....

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....

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....

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network