Monday, February 25, 2008

Context: History Problems at UW Madison

Over the weekend, the Capital Times featured an article by Joel McNally complaining that the student government of the University of Madison-Wisconsin is trying to "ban free speech on campus." Hoping to blast away the idea with a dose of history, McNally writes:

It's true, as someone apparently found out in a freshman history class, the U.S. Congress passed a Sedition Act in 1798 making it a crime "to write, print, utter or publish ... any false, scandalous and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President." But UWM student leaders, who passed a new Student Association Sedition Act, must have cut the next class, where they would have learned the original Sedition Act provoked such outrage as an offense against democracy that the Federalists, who championed it, were turned out of office two years later and the ridiculous law was removed from the books. Thomas Jefferson, elected president in 1800, pardoned all those convicted under the Sedition Act, and Congress restored all fines paid with interest.

I give credit to McNally for the effort, but his angle was poorly chosen and fatally flawed. First, Jefferson did not pardon "all those convicted under the Sedition Act." Some of them were actually pardoned by John Adams. And Jefferson only pardoned the two individuals who remained in prison for violating the Act at the time of his election (Thomas Callendar and David Brown). Second, Jefferson did not oppose the Sedition Act because it curtailed free speech per se. He opposed it because it was a federal law. When individuals were arrested for being critical of his own administration in the states, he said not a word. That is to say, Jefferson might very well applaud such an effort at UW Madison (assuming it was consistent with his own politics of course). Finally, McNally does not seem to be aware of the fact that sedition laws are still on the books today. Thus, UW Madison would not be bringing back a ghost from the 1790's. See McNally's otherwise fun-to-read article here.

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