Don’t let a crisis go to waste.
On July 14, 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. These criminal statutes were some of the first passed under the new constitution and proved to be a disaster for the liberties espoused by the founding fathers.
The alien portion of the law gave the President the power to deport any non-citizen who was “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” It also gave the government the power to arrest or deport any non-citizen during a time of war. (this is still on the books)
The sedition portion of the law outlawed “false or malicious” speech against the federal government and particularly the John Adams administration. The law used the ongoing naval conflict with France as a reason to limit free speech. As many people in government have been known to say, “don’t let a crisis go to waste”.
Adams’ allies pushed the bill to limit the daily smears that Thomas Jefferson supporters were printing to undermine his Presidency. President Adams and Vice President Jefferson were using media proxies to rip each other apart in front of the nation. Their barbs were comparable to anything seen on the swamp of Twitter today.
“Stop knocking me bro” – John Adams
Numerous newspaper writers and editors were arrested and jailed for violations of the Sedition Act. The list of those prosecuted included sitting United States Congressman Matthew Lyon. Lyon spoke out against the Adams administration in the Vermont Journal, calling the President and his supports aristocrats and dictators. He was convicted and spent 4 months in jail before returning to Congress.
Realizing the mistake of the laws, Congress let most parts of the statutes expire in 1800 after Jefferson took office. He pardoned all those who were convicted. The Supreme Court never got a chance to hear a case related to the Alien and Sedition Acts, but many justices have stated that the sedition portion was patently unconstitutional.
This first legal wrangling over the freedom of speech would not end with the expiration of the sedition law. The federal court system has continued to refine and enforce the freedom of speech that most Americans cherish today.
The government has not always been a willing participant in upholding the right to free speech. As recently as July 4, 2023, Federal Judge Terry Doughty ruled that the government’s forceful requests to censor content on social media amounted to a violation of the 1st Amendment (check out our article on the decision here). The government again used a crisis to impinge freedoms. They attempted to use COVID 19 and January 6th to impinge natural rights. Vigilance against oppression has been necessary since the beginning of our nation and must continue.
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