The press being held in pens at presidential rallies, verbally assaulted, jeered and taunted creates an environment where Donald Trump’s call for loosening libel laws is more than an idle threat. If anyone believes that a full censure of the press cannot happen here in America, one only needs to look here in America to know it can.
Following the first competitive presidential election of 1796, newspapers loyal to Vice President Thomas Jefferson attacked President John Adams continually. Jefferson was clearly using his friends in the press to set up a rematch with Adams in 1800, and Adams had had enough.
So in 1798, Adams implored Congress to pass the Alien and Sedition Act, giving the central government unprecedented power. The act had four provisions that allowed the government to expel foreign opponents, round up and incarcerate aliens, make it more difficult for newly minted citizens to vote and, most troubling, forbid any criticism of government. Sound familiar?
Adams claimed the act was necessary to conduct a cold war with France. Jefferson and his Democratic-Republican Party leaders claimed the new law was meant to silence them. Adams used the poor standing of the press as a political wedge issue that mirrors what is happening today.
For example, following a Ted Cruz attack on the press in an October debate, Republican pollster Frank Luntz reported participants in his focus group turned their dials to a level of approval Luntz had never seen.
Bernie Sanders castigates the press for calling Hillary Clinton the inevitable nominee. Clinton admonishes reporters for raising the private email issue.
But it is Trump, in repeatedly calling the press “dishonest scum” and promising to change libel law to make it easier to sue news organizations, who is the greatest threat to the Fourth Estate.
Making it easy to sue newspapers could effectively, pre-emptively censure free expression not just on the editorial page but also limit reporting on government and candidates. A changed libel law that in essence allows the rich to sue at will could even endanger criticism of the majority party by the minority party.
CNN reports Trump said, “We’re going to open up libel laws, and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”
Trump’s promise of civil fines is less severe than the criminal components of the 1798 Sedition Act, but the silencing effect could be the same.
The Sedition Act forbade, under the risk of fines and imprisonment, any person or group to speak, write or publish anything considered false, scandalous or malicious that brought Congress and/or the president into contempt or disrepute.
Penalties ranged from six months to five years in prison and a fine up to $5,000, which is in excess of $100,000 in today’s dollars.
One of the first people convicted of the Sedition Act was Congressman Matthew Lyon, of Vermont, who was imprisoned for criticizing Adams for “an unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp.” Upon his jailing, public opinion of the Sedition Act began to shift. Lyon’s constituents re-elected him during his four months in prison.
Accounts vary about the number of arrests and indictments, but most scholars cite 25 arrests and at least 14 verifiable indictments brought under the Sedition Act — mainly against Republican editors and newspapers, as Adams was a Federalist. It’s impossible to know how much criticism was not published out of fear.
Adams and his Federalists claimed the First Amendment was not being violated, as the government was not pre-emptively forbidding anyone from speaking or printing but exposed them to incarceration if they published.
The convictions and a gradual understanding by the public of what the Sedition Act meant to free speech created uproar and provided a major wedge issue, helping Jefferson win the 1800 race.
The Sedition Act was signed into law July 14, 1798, and was set to expire the last day of Adam’s term on March 3, 1801.
Adams and the Federalists protested loudly that their actions had no political intent, but interestingly, the act did not forbid criticism of the office of vice president, then occupied by Jefferson.
In the tussle of the upcoming general election, if presumptive nominees Trump and Clinton turn their rhetorical guns on the press, we must vigilantly ensure that history does not repeat itself.
Dane Strother is a Baton Rouge native and Washington, D.C.-based political consultant who lives in Potomac, Maryland, and is writing a book, “The History of Negative Campaigns.”