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Meaning of seditious speech
Did You Know?
Under the Espionage Act of 1917, which prohibited seditious speech, around 2,000 people were arrested, out of which 900 were ultimately convicted.
After achieving independence in 1776, the United States wanted to break away from the colonial structure of governance. The first step to setting up an effective administration was achieved when the Constitution was approved in the Philadelphia Convention of 1787. However, because they had just emerged from the oppressive shadow of the British, the Founding Fathers wanted to ensure that the American people enjoyed the civil liberties that the Great War had been fought for.

With this aim in mind, the First Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1791, which guaranteed the right to free speech, among other things. However, given the tumultuous journey of the country since then, having survived a Civil War, two World Wars, and ideological conflicts with communism, there were times when the right to free speech could be misused to harm the interests of the nation. This is a perfect description of a seditious speech, which is explained below with some examples.
Meaning
Seditious speech
Any speech that is made with the intention of inciting a violent and unlawful uprising against the administration is called a seditious speech. Such utterances may call for a rebellion against government institutions or its military, thus jeopardizing the internal security of the country.
Since the Great War of Independence, there have been a number of convictions for seditious speech under different laws passed by Congress. While till the 1950s and '60s, the Supreme Court upheld most convictions, from then on, it has made attempts to draw a line between sedition and healthy dissent. To uphold the right to speech given in the Constitution's First Amendment, the Court has stated that any speech must fulfill two main conditions to be considered as seditious:
  • The speech must be aimed at promoting lawlessness.
  • Apart from having unlawful motives, the speech should be capable of actually disrupting law and order, and threatening an established government.
In effect, this means that the right to free speech, even if it is seditious, is granted by the First Amendment, provided that it does not fulfill the conditions stated above.
Applicable Acts
Alien and Sedition Acts
John Adams
John Adams
These were a set of four laws passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress, and Signed by President John Adams in 1798, under the threat of war with France. These acts allowed the deportation of aliens, who were considered French supporters, apart from increasing the period of naturalization of citizens, from 5 to 14 years.
Moreover, criticizing the federal government, either verbally or in print, by making false allegations, was forbidden (called the Sedition Act). These laws expired with Adam's defeat in the 1800 polls, and the naturalization act was repealed in 1802.
Espionage Act of 1917
Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson
It was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on June 15, 1917, after the US entry into World War I. Apart from prohibiting spying for the enemy, by transferring sensitive information, it also forbade interference in military recruitment, and aiding the enemy in any way.
Moreover, the law was amended with the Sedition Act of 1918, which forbade making any false, abusive, or malicious comments against the government, or its armed forces, apart from indulging in anti-national activities. Under the provisions of this law, violators could be sentenced up to 20 years of imprisonment, and a fine of up to $10,000.
Smith Act
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Also known as the Alien Registration Act, it was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on June 28, 1940. This act required the registration of all non-US adults, and forbade their membership of any group which advocated the overthrow of the government, failing which they could be deported.
Moreover, the act prohibited any involvement in spreading verbal or written propaganda against the government. It was used to prosecute members of communist, socialist, anarchist, and rightist organizations, until the scope of this act was restricted by the Supreme Court in 1957.
Seditious Speech Examples
Schenck v/s United States
During World War I, Charles Schenck, the leader of the American Socialist Party, attempted to dissuade freshly-drafted soldiers in the US army from serving, by distributing thousands of pamphlets that claimed only the 'ruling classes' would benefit from their sacrifices. While Schenck was charged by the government in 1919, for violating the Espionage Act, which forbade interference in military recruitment, he appealed to the Supreme Court, saying that his right to free speech granted by the First Amendment, was being denied. Finally, the Court ruled in favor of the government, stating that the right to free speech was not limitless, and Schenck's actions had the potential to cause 'clear and present danger' to the administration, which Congress had the right to prevent.
Frohwerk v/s United States
In 1915, Jacob Frohwerk, a journalist, published 12 articles in his newspaper, criticizing US intervention in World War I. He was charged under the Espionage Act for maligning the country's war effort, and convicted by a trial court. In response, Frohwerk filed an appeal, stating that his right to free speech was being violated by this conviction. In 1919, the Supreme Court upheld his conviction, stating that the government was justified in protecting America's interests in the war, and Frohwerk's articles could have affected American soldiers, thus jeopardizing American war effort.
Debs v/s United States
On June 16, 1918, Eugene Debs, a Socialist leader, made a speech in Ohio, criticizing the American entry in World War I. He was charged for violating the Espionage Act of 1917, but Debs claimed his right to free speech was being violated. A federal district court struck down his claim, and sentenced him to 10 years in prison, which was upheld by the US Supreme Court, which stated that Debs aimed to interfere in the recruitment process of the US army, which was forbidden under the provisions of the Espionage Act.
Abrams v/s United States
Towards the end of World War I, a group of Russian Immigrants threw pamphlets from the window of a New York building, criticizing America for fighting with Russia, and incited workers of military industries to go on strike. This group, including a youth named Jacob Abrams, was tried and convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917, which forbade inciting a revolution against the government. When the case reached the Supreme Court in 1919, the court upheld their conviction, saying that their pamphlets intended to disrupt American war effort, and hence their right to speech was not being violated.
Gitlow v/s New York
In November 1919, Benjamin Gitlow, a Communist Party and New York Assembly member, was arrested for distributing pamphlets called the 'Left-wing Manifesto', that instigated people to overthrow the government through a class struggle. While Gitlow claimed that this was only a historical document, and that his right to free speech was being violated, he was sentenced to between 5 to 10 years in prison; a conviction upheld by the district court of appeals. After serving two years in prison, his case went up to the Supreme Court in 1925, which upheld his conviction, saying that, while one had the right to free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment, Gitlow and his colleagues were trying to overthrow the government, which constituted a case of sedition.
Whitney v/s California
In 1925, the State of California charged Anita Whitney, for founding the California branch of the American Communist Party, which, they alleged, wanted to overthrow the US government by unlawful means. While Anita argued that she did not support the party's violent activities, and her constitutional rights to speech, lawful association, and assembly, were being violated, the local county court and the Supreme Court of California convicted her. When an appeal reached the US Supreme Court by judicial review, the court upheld her conviction, stating that the administration had the right to take action against any violent threats to its existence, and the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment were not to be misused.
Dennis v/s United States
In 1948, Eugene Dennis, the General secretary of the American Communist Party, along with ten others, was arrested for violating the Smith Act, which banned membership in such organizations. While Dennis claimed his right to free speech was being denied, the trial court and court of appeals found the group guilty, and sentenced them to 5 years in prison, and a $10,000 fine. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the conviction was upheld, as Dennis and his colleagues were advocating a violent overthrow of the government, which presented a 'clear and present danger' to it.
Terminiello v/s City of Chicago
In 1949, a Catholic Priest named Arthur Terminiello gave a racially-motivated speech, praising the Nazi party in a Chicago hall, which drew an infuriated crowd outside. He was prosecuted by the local administration, for violating the City of Chicago's 'Breach of Peace' ordinance, which forbade any speech that could create unrest. While the appellate and Supreme Courts of Illinois upheld his conviction, the US Supreme Court acquitted Terminiello, stating that, while free speech, even if vitriolic, was beneficial to the development of society, and Terminiello's rights were being violated by his conviction. Moreover, the 'breach of peace' ordinance of the city was declared unconstitutional, as it violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
Brandenburg v/s Ohio
In 1969, Clarence Brandenburg, a member of the white supremacist organization Ku Klux Klan, made a speech in Ohio, which had inflammatory comments against African Americans and Jews, besides threats of violence against the government. He was arrested under Ohio's 'criminal syndicalism' laws, which forbade the use of criminal means to achieve political or industrial objectives. While Brandenburg claimed the violation of his rights granted by the First Amendment, he was convicted by the Court of Common Pleas in Hamilton County, which was upheld by the court of appeals. Finally, the Supreme Court ruled in Brandenburg's favor, claiming that, while his speech carried the threat of violence, there was no likelihood of actual unrest. This ruling set the precedent for the Court's 'imminent lawlessness' policy, which has, since then, been used to set the limits for free speech.
As can be seen from the above examples, a seditious speech is likely to be treated with the most hostility during times of national strife or war, when the public is sensitive about patriotism. However, critics argue that anti-sedition laws strike at the core of democracy, which is based on the principle of healthy criticism.