Freedoms of speech and the press in America are liberties guaranteed by the Bill of Rights — vital symbols of a free society. Hence, we may find ourselves appalled when news or other events suggest that we may not be as free as we think to criticize the government. But the truth is, the United States has a long history of suppressing basic rights we deem as inalienable.
Most attempts to block these freedoms have come primarily during wartime and in the interest of national security. Yes, threats of war and acts of terrorism may at times warrant extreme measures, but at what point do we lose the ability to state without reservation that we live in a free country? The conflict between individual rights and national security has been a persistent theme throughout our history.
The First Amendment guarantees us free speech, a free press, and the right to assemble. But it wasn’t long before efforts to suppress these liberties took root.
The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were supposedly enacted to strengthen national security. Authored by Federalists such as John Adams, the acts prohibited the publication of “false, scandalous, and writings against the government of the United States.”
Mere utterance of such sentiments was banned; protesting was unlawful. Newspaper editors and at least one lawmaker were imprisoned, immigrants were denied entry to the U.S., and foreigners were deported.
The acts were denounced by its critics as attempts to suppress voters who disagreed with the Federalist Party. In the 1800 presidential election, this became a divisive issue leading to the election of Thomas Jefferson, who ultimately pardoned those convicted.
Fast forward 60 years. Abraham Lincoln – The Great Emancipator – epitomizes freedom to many Americans today. Yet during the Civil War, Lincoln used his presidential powers to directly interfere with civil liberties. Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus, allowing individuals to be arrested and held without formal charges. Suspected political prisoners were tried before military tribunals, a practice difficult to fathom today. Or is it?
Lincoln was criticized mainly on constitutional grounds – that only Congress has the power to suspend habeas corpus. Lincoln was adamant in expanding the limits of presidential power during times of war. In his defense, these efforts were primarily directed at those who actually broke laws, not just on the basis of holding an opposing view. It wasn’t long before this would change.
During World War I, the Sedition and Espionage Acts were enacted to extend restrictions to a broad range of activities — notably speech. The Sedition Act of 1918 forbade the use of “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the government, the flag, or the military.
In the early 1900s, a force of federal special agents, later known as the Bureau of Investigation (the BOI) — and ultimately the FBI — was formed to fight corruption in government and law enforcement. President Woodrow Wilson used the BOI to clamp down on civil liberties in a manner unprecedented in American history, setting the stage for monitoring activities still practiced today.
According to historian Jennifer Weber, “Wilson’s administration systematically pursued leftists, immigrants and political dissidents not because of their actions but because of their political beliefs.”
Also prohibited was use of the US postal system to mail newspapers or magazines which expressed anti-war sentiment. Violators were threatened with substantial fines, and prison sentences of up to 20 years. Their crime: free speech.
Efforts to suppress free speech were not limited to just anti-war related dissent. One of the factors that allowed the flu pandemic of 1918 to result in 50-100 million deaths around the world was censorship, which minimized early reports of its spread in an attempt to keep wartime morale at high levels.
Even the nickname of that influenza epidemic – the Spanish Flu – was related to suppression of free speech. The press was freely permitted to report on the flu only regarding neutral Spain, suggesting that it was more devastating there than in war-torn countries.
In the decades that followed the First World War, the nation saw increased suppression of civil rights on a variety of fronts. Labor unions, feminists, and communists were among the groups targeted by newly-formed investigative groups, supported by laws at both federal and local levels.
World War II brought us the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and McCarthyism. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s was characterized by government suppression of individual rights. The Vietnam War Era was ripe with anti-war protests and corresponding efforts by the government to control dissent.
Were these efforts always within the law and consistent with principles of free speech?
One hundred years ago, a journalist writing on this topic could face imprisonment. Today, perhaps the only consequence is some attention from the NSA. Past precedents could change this yet again in the future.
So, the next time you hear the phrase “America: The Land of the Free,” ask yourself:
Is it really?