Tomorrow I’ll be speaking on a panel at the University of North Dakota’s Conflict Resolution Center’s symposium on civility (details on attending here, would love to see some SAB readers there). I’ve been preparing for the event this week, which is why posting has been light.
As I’ve been writing in the previous weeks, I am very suspicious of this topic. America has a long and ugly history with laws and regulations justified by a desire for “civility” but, at their heart, motivated by a desire to silence free speech. The Sedition Act of 1798 outlawed “scandalous and malicious” speech and writing. It put private citizens, members of the press and even a sitting member of Congress in jail.
That law was later overturned by President Thomas Jefferson and his anti-Federalists in Congress, but in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson passed the Sedition Act of 1918 outlawing “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language,” language clearly aimed at critics of WWI. That law was also overturned in 1921 by an incoming Republican Congress, but by the time WWII rolled around we were back at it again with the Smith Act which led to numerous trials of questionable legal provenance against people exercising their free speech, including the Great Sedition Trial of 1944.
The Smith Act was used during the “Red Scare” to convict communists for…espousing communism. In Dennis vs. United States the Supreme Court upheld such convictions, but Justice Hugo Black wrote in dissent that the indictment of the communists was “a virulent form of prior censorship of speech and the press.”
Now, while communism is a dangerous and misguided ideology, we should support free speech for everyone. Even for fools.
The Smith Act, by the way, is still law to this day. And the impulse to arrest people for speech hasn’t faded with time. The “Violent Radicalization And Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007” made illegal “The use, planned use or threatened use, of force…to coerce the…government, or civilian population…in furtherance of political or social objectives.”
That’s a statement so broadly written that I’m not sure it wouldn’t have made the civil rights protests of the 1960’s, which saw clashes between law enforcement and protesters seeking equal treatment for blacks, illegal.
I’ve been touched by this issue as well, in a very personal way. Five years ago this month I was banished from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation by the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. I had written an article about conditions on the reservation (you can still read it here) which the tribe deemed “injurious to the peace.” They alleged at the time that my column “seriously threatens the general welfare, health, safety and political security and prosperity of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, its members and other tribes in the State of North Dakota.”
You can read the entire exclusion order banishing me here, though I’d note that it makes several inaccurate claims about me. Despite the tribe’s own laws (not to mention my constitutional rights) requiring that I be afforded due process including the right to present a defense with legal counsel, this resolution was passed without me ever being notified. It wasn’t until it was picked up by the media that I was notified that I had been banned.
Now, agree with my positions on the welfare state and Indian reservations or not, the point is that we shouldn’t be censoring people simply because we don’t like what they say.
When I hear a push toward “civility,” it worries me. Because in the past, when these movements have gained momentum, free speech has almost always been the victim.