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IPFS News Link • Free Speech

Today's Censorship Is Personal


And yet a mere seven years after its ratification in 1791, Congress violated it in the most severe way with the "Alien and Sedition Acts" of 1798, which made it a crime to engage in "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against government officials. 

The Sedition Act mentioned Congress, the President (John Adams), government generally as protected, but was silent about the Vice President, who was Thomas Jefferson. Upon the election of Jefferson in 1800, it was repealed immediately. Indeed, the censorship was so controversial that Jefferson's opposition contributed to his victory.

The experience taught an important lesson. Governments have a tendency to want to control speech, meaning writing in those days, even if it means trampling on the rules that bind them. This is because they have an insatiable desire to manage the public mind, which is the story people carry around that can make the difference between stable rule and popular discontent. It has always been thus. 

We like to think that free speech is settled doctrine but that's not true. Thirty-five years after Jefferson's victory, in 1835, the U.S. Post Office banned the circulation of abolitionist materials in the South. This went on for 14 years until the ban was lifted in 1849. 

Then 12 years later, President Abraham Lincoln revived censorship after 1860, imposing criminal penalties on newspaper editors that supported the Confederacy and opposed the draft. Once again, people who disagreed with regime priorities were considered seditious. 

Woodrow Wilson did the same during the Great War, targeting anti-war newspapers and pamphleteers again. 

A new book by David Beito is the first to document FDR's censorship in the 1930s, muzzling opponents of his administration. Then in World War Two, the Office of Censorship got busy monitoring all mail and communications. The practice continued on after the war in the early years of the Cold War with the blacklists against alleged communists.