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Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are not guilty of sedition -- but over-the-top 'tea-party' rhetoric doesn’t help

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Historically, the bar has been set pretty low: Speech protected today almost always amounted to sedition in years past. The Sedition Act of 1798 criminalized “malicious writing” against the government, in large part to tamp down criticism against President John Adams and the Federalist government. Under its provisions, Revolutionary War veteran David Brown spent 18 months in jail for erecting a sign denouncing the Sedition Act and supporting Thomas Jefferson, the man who wrote the right of revolution into the Declaration of Independence.

During World War I, a new Sedition Act helped dissuade antiwar activists and landed Socialist politician Eugene Debs in jail. Revealing Americans’ uneasiness with political prisoners, Debs was allowed to run for president from his cell, winning nearly a million votes. A generation later, Franklin Roosevelt’s administration saw sedition in the very DNA of Japanese-Americans, sending them to internment camps in the western deserts for the duration of World War II.

Sedition, then, has been broadly construed in America’s past. But with the rise of civil liberty protections in the last half of the 20th century, speech has been given much looser rein. Even the USA Patriot Act, which had any number of liberty-limiting provisions, rarely constrained freedoms of speech and press outright.

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