Sunday, January 16, 2011

Imposing civility on political discourse

In reaction to the attack on Congresswoman Giffords, many people are pleading for more civility in political discourse. Representative Bob Brady wants to make it a federal crime to use language or symbols that could be perceived as threatening or inciting violence against a federal official or member of Congress.

If those calling for toned-down rhetoric are drafting new legislation, I could save them some time. They need only adopt language from this text, which was written some time ago and passed into law:

SECT. 2. And be it further enacted, That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered, or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering, or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either House of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either House of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States...then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

Pretty close to what the civilizers of political debate want, wouldn't you say?

The law herein described was passed in 1798 during the administration of John Adams. It was called the Sedition Act, and by its authority citizens were convicted and tossed into prison.

Thomas Jefferson and his party fiercely opposed it, of course. The Sedition Act was allowed to expire in 1801 when Jefferson became President, and has generally been branded a notorious affront to democratic institutions.

While sitting as President in 1804, Jefferson wrote to Abigail Adams this denunciation: "I discharged [i.e. pardoned] every person under punishment or prosecution under the Sedition law, because I considered and now consider that law to be a nullity as absolute and as palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a gold image."

Those seeking to outlaw over-heated debate would do well to look deep into our history (or only as far back as the 1960s – or the recent Bush Administration). They would find that hot, highly uncivil rhetoric accompanies our democracy at every turn. They might pause before trying to tame angry expressions by legal means lest they find themselves regarded with the same disfavor as the party of John Adamswhich, a few years after passing the Sedition Act, became extinct.



Anonymous said...

Having a deep knowledge of this particular historical period (I watched the entire John Adams mini-series on PBS), I concur that these short-sighted, reactionary steps always look ridiculous in retrospect. Regardless of what is said in the public discourse, some individuals will stitch together a rationale for violence.

brandsinger said...

...yes, and some will always be ready to stitch together a rationale for controlling political debate... so that their own position are defended from attack.