Sedition is language intended to incite insurrection against the governing authority. Edward Jenks, in The Book of English Law, contends that sedition is “perhaps the very vaguest of all offences,” and attempted to define it as “the speaking or writing of words calculated to excite disaffection against the Constitution as by law established, to procure the alteration of it by other than lawful means, or to incite any person to commit a crime to the disturbance of the peace. . .” Currently, the federal government criminalizes seditious conspiracy in 18 U.S.C. § 2384, which states, “[i]f two or more persons in [the U.S.], conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both.”
Sedition has a long history in Anglo-American common law tradition. Curtis Bright, in Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era, describes how the modern meaning of the word “sedition”—then defined as the “’notion of inciting by words or writing disaffection towards the state or constituted authority’”—emerged in the Elizabethan era. This concept of sedition traveled to the North American continent, where colonies often had sedition laws of their own. For example, in the colony of New York, the colonial Governor sought to prosecute John Peter Zenger in 1735 under a seditious libel law which criminalized “the intentional publication, without lawful excuse or justification, of written blame of any public man or of the law, or any institution established by the law.” A jury refused to convict Zenger however, in Crown v. John Peter Zenger, as the content he published was ultimately true. In 1775, King George III emphasized the need to prosecute sedition as a means to stem the revolt in the American colonies. In his Proclamation, by The King for Suppressing Rebellion and Sedition, he ordered all royal officers to do their utmost to prosecute and investigate possible rebellion and sedition.
Following American independence, sedition quickly became a topic of controversy again. In 1798, a Federalist administration led by John Adams feared that the ideas of the French Revolution, radical at the time for many Americans, would infiltrate the new Republic, even potentially leading to its early demise. To prevent this, he and a federalist Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which stated, “if any persons shall unlawfully combine or conspire together, with intent to oppose any measure or measures of the government of the United States, which are or shall be directed by proper authority, or to impede the operation of any law of the United States, or to intimidate or prevent any person holding a place or office in or under the government of the United States, from undertaking, performing or executing his trust or duty, and if any person or persons, with intent. . . he or they shall be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor. . .” The Democratic-Republican administration, led by Thomas Jefferson, which beat Adams and the Federalist party in elections in 1800 repealed the acts.
While the U.S. still criminalizes sedition in 18 U.S.C. § 2384, the First Amendment’s free speech protections limit the extent to which states and the federal government can criminalize sedition. In 1969, a U.S. Supreme Court case, Brandenburg v. Ohio, created a test requiring that speech must directly or imminently likely produce violence. Most modern seditious conspiracy convictions under § 2384 involve terrorist plots. For example, in U.S. v. Rahman, the Second Circuit upheld the convictions of the Muslim clerics under § 2384 who plotted “to bomb office building, tunnels, and bridges in New York City, to assassinate President of Egypt, and to assassinate Israeli citizen who professed militant Zionism.”
[Last updated in April of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]