On July 14, 1798, the Sedition Act Killed Free Speech

John Keller | @keller4liberty

The Sedition Act

On this day, July 14, in 1798 the Sedition Act was signed into law by President John Adams. The Sedition Act made it illegal for Americans to write in the form of publications, such as news organizations, or utter phrases in public that were deemed to be a fabrication or ‘malicious’ against the government or sitting administration. The repercussions were unmistakable.

The bill originated as a result of a high risk of war between Revolutionary France and the United States of America. As the threat of war grew and the XYZ Affair spiraled out of control, the United States government, run by the Federalist Party, sought to protect their image from attack, their status from scandal, and their war aims from skepticism. The Federalist Party was Pro-war with France.

The Sedition Act was a clear violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, and it forced the mainstream narrative’s main opposition, the Democratic-Republican Party, to go underground in many ways. Thomas Jefferson stated that he felt afraid to publish his thoughts for fear of not only political repercussions but legal ones as well. Although the act expired on March 3, 1801, it brings up an interesting question in the modern day: what is the state of free press and censorship?

Liberal Perspective

In the current day and age, many face a similar issue that Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans faced in 1798. In the age of Donald Trump and ‘Fake News’, anything that contradicts the president is considered a fabrication against the administration and a malicious attack on the person in the office.

Such incidents can be seen regularly in press conferences, where Donald Trump will refuse time or questions from certain organizations. News outlets such as MSNBC and CNN experience this treatment under the justification of their organization being ‘Fake News’. Such incidents make journalism duties difficult to fulfill and force media companies to adopt an ‘underground’ mentality that leads to a higher level of combative pieces that further an agenda. In the case of organizations like MSNBC and CNN, an anti-administration agenda, rather than unbiased, moderate journalism.

But such activity is not restricted to press conferences. The sitting president has actively campaigned against anti-administration journalism, labeling it all ‘Fake News’ and applauding supporters for ignoring all press from these organizations. With such an environment created on the field of journalism, honest reporting in the mainstream becomes difficult as every individual reporter and journalist has to choose one side or the other, and the truth is often left somewhere between the two.

Thus, the mainstream press is forced into a state of suppression and anything that challenges the image of the President, the status of the sitting party, or counters war aims, such as with Iran, is either taken to the extreme or is left untouchable as both sides gear up for a ‘war’ that leaves the truth the first causality.

Conservative Perspective

Likewise, such incidents can be found online, mainly in social media. Many moderate and conservative thinkers have had their accounts banned (either temporarily or permanently) and their ability to post restricted. For example, Dave Rubin has openly discussed issues with YouTube and the streaming of his show The Rubin Report.

As Dave Rubin attempts to tackle the tough issues of today, such as radical Islam and extreme partisan politics, YouTube has demonetized videos discussing these topics and more, discouraging anti-mainstream press. While Thomas Jefferson admitted fear for his life, Dave Rubin and others have to face the reality of making money to support themselves or sustaining good discourse.

While Dave Rubin has reached out to supporters to help keep the show running, not all press and thinkers have the same backing and thus going against the mainstream narrative can be very risky in terms of material cost, and many risk defamation – just as the Democratic-Republicans did after the passage of the Sedition Act.

Concluding Remarks

Although technology has evolved and the Sedition Act is no longer in place, the environment remains largely the same, whether operating in the mainstream narrative or against it. Regardless of whether your politics lean left or right, this is a concerning development. Although free to publish stories of one’s choosing without significant legal consequence, there remain many deterrents to a free and open political discourse in America. Forms of censorship are becoming increasingly common online and on social media. 

In 1801, with the changing of power from President John Adams to President Thomas Jefferson, the Sedition Act vanished and with it a relative state of ease fell over the press-state relationship. Thus, one can expect that with the changing over to the next president, regardless of party, it is likely the press-state relationship will again change.

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