5/95 Clinton And The Sedition Act

President Clinton and the Sedition Act
Larry Pratt
Executive Director
Gun Owners of America

It’s nothing short of shameful whenever people use a tragedy to further their own political agenda. Sadly, that is exactly what is happening in the wake of the Oklahoma City disaster.

Let me say right up front that what happened in Oklahoma was a heart wrenching tragedy. Not only because innocent children were brutally murdered, but because defenseless people of all ages had their lives taken or destroyed.

But let’s return to the political agendas of those who seek to exploit this tragedy. Just hours after the bombing, amidst the cries for justice and condolences for the bereaved, a dissonant chord began to ring out. We were being told that the bombing was somehow linked to gun control opponents.

The Administration was among the first to change the subject from terrorism to gun control, alleging that certain patriot or militia groups were involved in the bombing. Militias and other “right-wing fanatical” groups, we’re told, are literally obsessed with the Constitution, especially the Second Amendment.

But any group who believes in something strongly can be labeled as fanatics by those who disagree with them. President Clinton thinks militias are a bunch of fanatics, and militias may think Clinton is a fanatic. And all that is fine, so long as the discourse flows freely in the vast market place of ideas that makes America so diverse.

The danger, however, is that Mr. Clinton has been vilifying militia groups so vehemently, that he now wants the groups to stop even talking about their strong opposition to certain government policies. Says the president: “They (government critics) spread hate. They leave the impression, by their very words, that violence is acceptable.”

With that type of thinking, Mr. Clinton seeks to take us back almost 200 years to the Sedition Act of 1798. Yes, even back then there were critics of the government. In truth, this country was founded by people who were highly critical of the government.

In 1798, the way the Federalists tried to deal with critics of their president was to pass the Sedition Act. The Act declared that “if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish…any false, scandalous, and malicious writings against the government…with the intent to defame government” they could be imprisoned for two years. This law was overturned by Congress a few years later.

A similar law was passed in 1917, in an attempt to quiet critics of the U. S. involvement in the war effort. This law condemned “abusive language about the form of government … [bringing it] into contempt, scorn or disrepute,” and such crimes were also punishable by imprisonment. The Supreme Court later ruled that law unconstitutional.

Throughout this century, there have been numerous other instances of the government unjustly taking away peoples liberties, from the detainment of Japanese-Americans during the second World War, to the infiltration of the peaceful civil rights protesters of the sixties. In every instance, the government’s actions have been condemned.

When the President of the United States talks about quieting the harsh critics of the government, that should be cause for concern by people across the political spectrum. If he is allowed to use the tragedy in Oklahoma to further curtail our First and Second Amendment rights, we will have another kind of tragedy: the loss of freedom.

For the record, Mr. Clinton assures us that “Americans will retain fundamental freedoms of speech, assembly, and the right to bear arms.” But he has also said that Americans must give up some of their freedoms. This leads one to wonder if the president even understands the meaning of a “fundamental freedom”.

This president should observe the lessons of history. In a free country, innocent people should not be condemned and stripped of their rights. His blaming the Oklahoma incident on the speech of militias and other “right wing” organizations would be tantamount to blaming the bombings by the Weathermen on all Vietnam war protesters, of which he was one.

In the case of the Oklahoma bombing, the perpetrators should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. If found guilty, they have forfeited all of their rights. But as for law-abiding citizens who love freedom, whether from the right or the left, to take away their rights would be to severely attack the principles that have made this country great.