Sedition – then and now

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.

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22 Comments

  1. Well Andrew, a great deal of the left’s actions over Iraq have certainly been seditious.
    That crap about supporting the troops but not the war is a cop out in case the sedition laws do take effect.

    Some on your side of the fence have openly sided with the insurgents by writing op-ed pieces about such matters. Robert Fisk and Pilger come to mind.

    Do you support this human garbage, Andrew?

  2. Yo Andrew, sorry this is off topic – but thought I’d mention the English local elections. The LibDems won 27% of the vote – ahead of Labour’s 26% though behind the Tories 40%. Sadly this translates to a few less seats than Labour, and I notice that the ABC, Australian media generally totally ignore the LibDems, while giving coverage to the BNP gaining a few wards! Compare this to the LibDems who actually won whole councils! Amazing how the Australian media have a blind spot for the third party, even when they come second in the national vote tally!

  3. pc police, the only difference is that the people of the “left” will fight for your right to free speech and dissent, no matter how much they may disagree with it.

    One man’s insurgent is another man’s loyalist, after all, many people disagree with the COW illegal invasion of another country.

  4. LOL… that’s a joke… look at the treatment meted out to certain people and parties here in OZ over the last decade and to anybody that publically mentioned immigration or multicultturalism. What a crock.

  5. Criticism of the government is a primary responsibility of all citizens of any nation. Citizens who seek to refine the practises of government to ensure the survival of a healthy democracy, are the only patriots it has- and every single critic as such deserves a medal.

    Governments which enact sedition laws, the sole purpose of which being protection of a government from criticism are, by strictest dictionary definition, fascist. Such governments necessarily must be removed from office in a timely manner. Fascism is utterly incompatible with democracy.

    Get in bed with fascists and you can expect equal measures of critique from truly patriotic citizens.

  6. What a crock…. criticism of government is the primary responsibility of all citizens. ROTFLMAO.

    Anyone who believes that is indeed a problem. I guess these same patriots will be silent and the other side will criticise the government when another party is in government. hardly logical or sensible.

  7. “And haven’t we all seen the definition list of a fascist regime – the US and Australian Governments easily fit into the category.”

    ah fascism….always about to descend over the US at any moment…..but it somehow only lands in Europe.

  8. “One man’s insurgent is another man’s loyalist”

    only if you are completely bereft of any moral underpinnings

    “after all, many people disagree with the COW illegal invasion of another country.”

    ah, the people who wanted Saddam to continue to kill the Iraqi people by the thousands? Do these people matter?

  9. “ah, the people who wanted Saddam to continue to kill the Iraqi people by the thousands? Do these people matter?”

    Err, wasn’t it about WMD?
    Better that the COW kills thousands of Iraqi innocents is it?

  10. You saying Hussein had no ambitions to aquire them Deborah?
    No ambition to lead the Arab world?
    That he cooperated completely with the UN etc?
    That the UN had no reason to set up sanctions against him?
    That he didn’t allow his people to suffer because of his ambitions?

  11. Geoff, you have bought into the fear campaign. You happily accept the loss of your rights and freedoms on the excuse of preventing terrorism (which it won’t do).

    The loss of our rights as Australian citizens, without a supporting Bill of Rights to protect these basic human rights, leaves all Australians very vulnerable to the dictates of big Government.

  12. No I haven’t Deborah.
    In fact so far none of the measures have impacted on my life one little bit.
    Did you decide to take this direction because you couldn’t refute my previous post?
    BTW, we don’t need a Bill of Rights.

  13. Talibani, the Iraqi President, announced today that over 1900 people have been killed in violence in Baghdad alone in the month of April.

    It depresses me so to think that these people would probably still be alive today – is it a worthy price for the reign of a dictator? Is it a worthy price for whatever it is the US has offered? I wish we could ask the people who have died or lost loved ones, but of course no one is doing that. It’s all about ideology in the US, UK etc. These people are ‘collateral damage’ in some ridiculous global ideological warfare.

  14. Geoff, ambitions are not deeds,according to your reasoning, Iraq was invaded and many Iraqi citizens are dead because Saddam might have wanted to do something, and the COW knew what he was thinking.? Even in Oz we are not tried for a crime until one has been committed.

    Glad that all is Ok with you and that you don’t care what happens to other people, as long as you are not affected.

    http://www.marchforjustice.com/israellobby.php

  15. Deb he was actively pursuing it not, might have been or was toying with the idea.
    The part of the british intelligence report that made this claim was actually uphel as being correct.
    Iraqis are dead because they were living in a war zone today they are being killed by fellow Iraqis and insurgent terrorists.
    Care to try again?
    BTW I was against going into Iraq try vilifying someone else eh.

  16. Off topic reply to Geoff

    “Iraqis are dead because they were living in a war zone today they are being killed by fellow Iraqis and insurgent terrorists”

    And why are Iraqi’s living in a war zone?

    -The sovereign nation of Iraq was illegally invaded by the COW.

    Even with Saddam, the Iraqi’s had power and water, medicine and food were given after sanctions applied (no thanks to Australian Govt & AWB who assisted Saddam in circumventing the sanctions)

    Since Iraq has been “liberated,” Iraqi citizens have not had these basic needs met.

  17. Well as much as I’d like to put you straight yet again Deb… I fear Andrew will have to do a lot of deleting before the end is in sight.

    We’ve already had numerous posts which I consider off-topic here.

    As for the real topic… I think the difference between dissent and sedition is pretty clear. I think there was a “good faith” clause in the law.

    From what I can remember of the law it was couched in language that reflected the fact that we had a Sovereign. Something I think the new laws could do without.

    I think new laws more than double the maximum penalty for sedition from three years imprisonment to seven.

    The amended laws no longer include specific penalties for uttering seditious words, nor provisions relating to seditious enterprises, although the definition of seditious intent continues to apply in the determination of unlawful organisations. Also, all prosecutions for sedition would require the approval of the Attorney-General. Hint; don’t tick off the Attorney-General.

    Other principal changes to the sedition laws in the bill seem to involve:

    the inclusion of sedition along with the separate crime of treason under their new joint heading.

    the introduction of the concept of recklessness. (Recklessness???? The definition of which would be? The same as “recless endangerment” perhaps.)

    the inapplicability of seditious intention to individuals not associated with an unlawful organisation.

    the extension to include foreign citizens. (Can they truly be seditious?)

    The Anti-Terrorism Bill (No 2.) 2005 where this topic stems from, also included provisions for a five-year review, and has a ten-year sunset clause.

    I believe amendments re free-speech are still in the offing. The whole thing really needs to be re-written.

  18. Since I brought it up, re-writing it that is, I suppose one needs to understand what one is talking about and what laws already exist in relation to it.

    trea·son ( P ) Pronunciation Key (trzn)
    n.
    Violation of allegiance toward one’s country or sovereign, especially the betrayal of one’s country by waging war against it or by consciously and purposely acting to aid its enemies.

    se·di·tion ( P ) Pronunciation Key (s-dshn)
    n.
    Conduct or language inciting rebellion against the authority of a state.
    Insurrection; rebellion.

    dis·sent ( P ) Pronunciation Key (d-snt)
    intr.v. dis·sent·ed, dis·sent·ing, dis·sents
    To differ in opinion or feeling; disagree.
    To withhold assent or approval.

  19. My impression is that most of the people who oppose the sedition laws either don’t understand them, or wilfully misrepresent them.

    Or they suffer from such rampant paranoia that they actually think Australia and the US are “fascist” countries.

    This makes it difficult to take such people seriously.

  20. The only people that are suffering from fear and paranoia are those who need to have the new sedition laws to feel safe and protected.

    We’ll just have to wait and see if these laws are used against Australians exercising their rights to freedom of speech, to demonstrate peacefully and to the poor people who just happen to “look suspicious”!

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