In law, sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection against the established order. Sedition often includes subversion of a constitution and incitement of discontent (or resistance) to lawful authority. Sedition may include any commotion, though not aimed at direct and open violence against the laws. Seditious words in writing are seditious libel. A seditionist is one who engages in or promotes the interests of sedition.
Typically, sedition is considered a subversive act, and the overt acts that may be prosecutable under sedition laws vary from one legal code to another. Where the history of these legal codes has been traced, there is also a record of the change in the definition of the elements constituting sedition at certain points in history. This overview has served to develop a sociological definition of sedition as well, within the study of state persecution.
The term sedition in its modern meaning first appeared in the Elizabethan Era (c. 1590) as the “notion of inciting by words or writings disaffection towards the state or constituted authority”. “Sedition complements treason and martial law: while treason controls primarily the privileged, ecclesiastical opponents, priests, and Jesuits, as well as certain commoners; and martial law frightens commoners, sedition frightens intellectuals.”
In 1798, President John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, the fourth of which, the Sedition Act or “An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States” set out punishments of up to two years of imprisonment for “opposing or resisting any law of the United States” or writing or publishing “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the President or the U.S. Congress (though not the office of the Vice-President, then occupied by Adams’ political opponent Thomas Jefferson). This Act of Congress was allowed to expire in 1801 after Jefferson’s election to the Presidency.
In the Espionage Act of 1917, Section 3 made it a federal crime, punishable by up to 20 years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000, to willfully spread false news of the American army and navy with an intent to disrupt their operations, to foment mutiny in their ranks, or to obstruct recruiting. This Act of Congress was amended Sedition Act of 1918, which expanded the scope of the Espionage Act to any statement criticizing the Government of the United States. These Acts were upheld in 1919 in the case of Schenck v. United States, but they were largely repealed in 1921, leaving laws forbidding foreign espionage in the United States and allowing military censorship of sensitive material.
In 1940, the Alien Registration Act, or “Smith Act“, was passed, which made it a federal crime to advocate or to teach the desirability of overthrowing the United States Government, or to be a member of any organization which does the same. It was often used against Communist Party organizations. This Act was invoked in three major cases, one of which against the Socialist Worker’s Party in Minneapolis in 1941, resulting in 23 convictions, and again in what became known as the Great Sedition Trial of 1944 in which a number of pro-Nazi figures were indicted but released when the prosecution ended in a mistrial. Also, a series of trials of 140 leaders of the Communist Party USA also relied upon the terms of the “Smith Act”—beginning in 1949—and lasting until 1957. Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the convictions of 11 CPUSA leaders in 1951 in Dennis v. United States, that same Court reversed itself in 1957 in the case of Yates v. United States, by ruling that teaching an ideal, no matter how harmful it may seem, does not equal advocating or planning its implementation. Although unused since at least 1961, the “Smith Act” remains a Federal law.
There was, however, a brief attempt to use the sedition laws against protesters of the Vietnam War. On October 17, 1967, two demonstrators, including then Marin County resident Al Wasserman, while engaged in a ‘sit in’ at the Army Induction Center in Oakland, Ca., were arrested and charged with sedition by deputy US. Marshall Richard St. Germain. U.S. Attorney Cecil Poole changed the charge to trespassing. Poole said, “three guys (according to Mr. Wasserman there were only 2) reaching up and touching the leg of an inductee, and that’s conspiracy to commit sedition? That’s ridiculous!” The inductees were in the process of physically stepping on the demonstrators as they attempted to enter the building, and the demonstrators were trying to protect themselves from the inductees’ feet. Attorney Poole later added, “We’ll decide what to prosecute, not marshals.”
In 1981, Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican Nationalist and Vietnam war veteran, was convicted and sentenced to 70 years in prison for seditious conspiracy and various other offenses. He was among the 16 Puerto Rican nationalists offered conditional clemency by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999, but he rejected the offer. His sister, Zenaida López, said he refused the offer because on parole, he would be in “prison outside prison.” López Rivera is said to be “among the longest held political prisoners in the history of Puerto Rico and in the world.” He has been jailed for 32 years, 8 months, and 24 days.
In 1987 fourteen white supremacists were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against a seditious conspiracy between July 1983 and March 1985. Some alleged conspirators were serving time for overt acts, such as the crimes committed by The Order. Others such as Louis Beam and Richard Butler were charged for their speech seen as spurring on the overt acts by the others. In April 1988, a federal jury in Arkansas acquitted all the accused of charges of seditious conspiracy.
Laura Berg, a nurse at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in New Mexico was investigated for sedition in September 2005 after writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, accusing several national leaders of criminal negligence. Though their action was later deemed unwarranted by the director of Veteran Affairs, local human resources personnel took it upon themselves to request an FBI investigation. Ms. Berg was represented by the ACLU. Charges were dropped in 2006.
On March 28, 2010, nine members of the Hutaree militia were arrested and charged with crimes including seditious conspiracy.
Sedition is a punishable offense under Article 94 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Volksverhetzung (“incitement of the people”) is a legal concept unique to Germany. It is sometimes loosely translated as sedition, although the law bans the incitement of hatred against a segment of the population. Segment of the population meaning, for example, a race or religion.