In 1798, President John Adams signed a bill into law criminalizing speech critical of the federal government. Today, the feds take a more subtle approach to controlling speech, but the spirit of the Sedition Act lives on.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions in response to the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Madison called out the tendency of the federal government “to enlarge its powers by forced constructions of the constitutional charter which defines them” and to forcibly expound upon certain general phrases within the Constitution with the intent to destroy their actual meaning, This reminds me of watching my nieces attempt to argumentatively manipulate the household rules set by their parents, for good reason, in order to assert their dominance and gain more power within the home’s hierarchical social structure.
Thankfully parents, more often than not, understand that they know best for their children and stay the course.
Jefferson outlines a similar need to prevent the federal government from transgressing the limits outlined by the compact (the Constitution), and suggests the states remain vigilant of the fact that their child (the federal government) will likely attempt to deter them from what they conceive as their duty, thus shrinking the states from the principles contained within their resolutions.
Today, we can find certain parallels between the Sedition Act placed into question by the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, and current attempts to delegitimize and censor public opinion and the free press.
At the time, John Adams’ Federalists posited that the Sedition Act was both “wise and necessary” in order to shield the people from malicious slander and libel aimed at discrediting those in power. Specifically, they were worried about France’s potential tactics to create a situation in the U.S. where this sort of defamation spread from the mouths of French insurgents until it became commonly accepted popular opinion. Rather than the accused being found innocent until proven guilty, an individual charged under the Act would be found guilty of sedition until they were able to prove their words to be true.
Fast forward to 2018, and the French have become the Russians, and the need to prove your words to be true, rather than someone else needing to prove them to be false, has transformed into blindly categorizing competing outlets as fake news.
While the late 18th century saw the restriction of free speech carried out by the Federalists in relation to the case at hand, the concern over fake news is proving to be a non-partisan issue at the moment. An April 4th article from the left-leaning source Politico reveals that 61percent of Democrats, 89 percent of Republicans, and 82 percent of Independents currently believe fake news to be a significant issue. How to deal with the issue is where the divergence begins.
The Trump administration has taken to publicly shaming those that choose to speak ill of them, going so far as to send out surveys inquiring whether the public would support punishments for any potential scandalmongering or false accusations. Meanwhile, we are witnessing an increase in the relegation and censorship of conservative and far-right opinions by industry giants YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google, suggesting alignment with the left.
On April 10, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a nod to those on the left in his congressional testimony when he pointed out that the company had a “better record” of filtering or controlling content in the 2017 Alabama Special Election, as well as the recent French and German elections than they did in the 2016 US presidential election. These resulted in the elections of Doug Jones (D-AL), Emmanuel Macron, and Angela Merkel, respectively; all aligned with the progressive left. He went on to emphasize that he sees eye to eye with Congress on the need to better police Facebook’s ecosystem in order to make sure people are using the tool appropriately. Unfortunately, the federal government seems to be the one leading the way in defining appropriateness.
My question is this: if Jefferson and Madison didn’t think the Alien and Sedition Acts were Constitutional, then how would they feel about the way this is developing?
No American likes the idea of Russians interfering in our elections, the idea of hate speech on social media platforms having a hand in the development of the slaughtering of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, or mainstream media outlets delivering news with agenda-driven twists and questionable efforts in regard to fact-checking. But if we allow the federal government to dictate what is permissible to say and what isn’t, and if we allow Facebook’s artificial intelligence to develop to the point where it automatically filters out what the federal government has defined as hate speech, then at what point will we be restricted from saying, “enough?”
Both the Democrats and the Republicans seem to be attacking the same that the Federalists were when they passed the Sedition Act of 1798. Ultimately, it appears that the federal government is still on a mission to restrict free speech under the guise of righteousness and appropriateness.
This is a dangerous path, and it’s my opinion that a better outcome would be reached through the free market deciding that it doesn’t want to opt-in to Facebook’s policies, or that it no longer wants to keep Facebook profiles active because the company has lost our trust. Discussions between private citizens as to whether or not this source or that is reputable anymore is a better solution than politicians in Washington D.C. introducing punitive measures for “news” they dislike in an anxious attempt to subject their opposition to the fangs of despotism, as Jefferson so eloquently put it.
And lastly, it is crucial to remind the federal government that it is not the judge of the extent of its own powers any more than a child is the judge of theirs.
Tenth Amendment Center
The Tenth Amendment Center is a national think tank that works to preserve and protect the principles of strictly limited government through information, education, and activism. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of state and individual sovereignty issues, focusing primarily on the decentralization of federal government power as required by the Constitution. For more information visit the Tenth Amendment Center Blog.