I always find it interesting to discover historical debates that resonate – and often help illuminate – with the debates of today.
I discovered an example of this in a fascinating piece in this week’s New York Times that gives an insight into the use of sedition laws in the past.
Towards the end of last year, the updating of Australian law regarding the old offence of sedition caused a lot of debate and concern. I did a post on this issue on my old blog around the time it was before the Senate, which also drew a few comments.
The piece in the New York Times tells of an action by the current Governor of Montana to posthumously pardon 78 people convicted of sedition in 1918, with sentences up to 20 years in jail.
The sedition law, which made it a crime to say or publish anything “disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous or abusive” about the government, soldiers or the American flag, was unanimously passed by the Legislature in February 1918. It expired when the war ended.
The Governor’s actions to pardon the 78 people reportedly germinated from a book by Clemens Work into the sedition laws from the time of World War 1.
During that time, though Germans were the largest ethnic group in Montana, it was also illegal to speak German, and books written in it were banned. Local groups called third-degree committees were formed to ferret out people not supportive of the war.
Twenty-seven states had sedition laws during World War I. Montana’s became the template for a federal law, enacted by Congress later in 1918.
Mr. Work was conducting research for the book when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. He said he had found the similarities between 2001 and 1918 to be eerie. “The hair on the back of my neck stood up,” Mr. Work said. “The rhetoric was so similar, from the demonization of the enemy, to saying ‘either you’re with us or against us’, to the hasty passage of laws.”
I don’t suggest the wartime situation in Montana in 1918 is the same as Australia in 2006, but I do think history provides many good examples we can learn from – not least to consider how our actions and decisions today might look like through hindsight’s prism of fairness and justice.