The First Amendment right to freedom of speech has been in the news a lot lately. It has been the center of the debate over whether Left wing protestors disrupting Donald Trump rallies are denying his constitutional right to freedom of speech. Trump certainly does have a right to speak, but he himself has suggested that we "open up libel laws" to prevent journalists, opinion writers and others from being critical of candidates and elected officials.
If Trump is elected president and is successful in his effort to curtail free speech it won’t be the first time in our nation’s history a chief executive has done so. Every president has sought to control the flow of information. There are legitimate reasons to do so; national security comes first to mind. But presidents, especially those in the modern era, are hyper-sensitive to their public image. Some, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton handled the media well. This allowed Reagan to weather the Iran Contra scandal, and Bill Clinton to survive impeachment. Others crossed the line. Richard Nixon and his infamous "plumbers unit" to plug White House leaks is a good example.
But perhaps no set of laws in American history parallel what could occur in the current political climate than the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts passed by congress in 1798 and signed into law by our second president, John Adams. The laws were passed in response to foreign threats, notably from France, and a desire to curb immigration. One of the acts set the stage for what could have been mass deportation of French immigrants. There was also concern over "hordes wild Irishmen" and non-English speaking groups.
Adam’s Federalist government was not content to crack down on what it saw as foreign threats, but went further seeking to quell domestic dissent through passage of the Sedition Acts. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation the act first outlawed conspiracies to "oppose any measure or measures of the government." Going further, the act made it illegal for anyone to express "any false, scandalous and malicious writing" against the congress or the president.
If that law were in force today any commentator from Chris Matthews to Rush Limbaugh could be arrested and jailed. George Soros could be put into the slammer with the Koch Brothers. Citizen activists from MoveOn.org to Heritage Action would also be sharing jail cells.
In fact, the ruling Federalists did use the sedition act to wage war on opposition newspapers winning indictments and convictions. One Republican congressman, Matthew Lyon of Vermont was put on trial, convicted and jailed for opposing the Adams Administration. Interestingly Lyon ran for re-election while in jail, won and then after his release became a popular hero in the fight for free speech.
The Alien and Sedition Acts were a major issue in the presidential campaign of 1800 which saw Thomas Jefferson defeating Adams. That led to the ultimate repeal of the Acts and a return of constitutional free speech rights. In his inaugural address, President Jefferson defined the rights of free speech and press as the ability of Americans to "think freely and to speak and write what they think."
That particular chapter of American history illustrates the often far-reaching and unintended consequences of attempting to curb in any way our most basic constitutional rights. President Adam’s concerns over immigration and national security resulted in the passage of laws that trampled the rights of every American citizen. Fortunately for the nation Thomas Jefferson’s cooler head ultimately prevailed and our rights were restored.
There is no doubt John Adams contributed greatly and in many positive ways to the founding of our nation. But, as Benjamin Franklin once observed: Adams "means well for his country, is always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes, and in some things, absolutely out of his senses."
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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