Skip to main content

John Whitehead's Commentary

All of Us Are in Danger: When Anti-Government Speech Becomes Sedition [SHORT]

John Whitehead

Anti-government speech has become a four-letter word.

In more and more cases, the government is declaring war on what should be protected political speech whenever it challenges the government’s power, reveals the government’s corruption, exposes the government’s lies, and encourages the citizenry to push back against the government’s many injustices.

Indeed, there is a long and growing list of the kinds of speech that the government considers dangerous enough to red flag and subject to censorship, surveillance, investigation and prosecution: hate speech, conspiratorial speech, treasonous speech, threatening speech, inflammatory speech, radical speech, anti-government speech, extremist speech, etc.

Things are about to get even dicier for those who believe in fully exercising their right to political expression.

Indeed, the government’s seditious conspiracy charges against Stewart Rhodes, the founder of Oath Keepers, and several of his associates for their alleged involvement in the January 6 Capitol riots puts the entire concept of anti-government political expression on trial.

Enacted during the Civil War to prosecute secessionists, seditious conspiracy makes it a crime for two or more individuals to conspire to “‘overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force’ the U.S. government, or to levy war against it, or to oppose by force and try to prevent the execution of any law.”

It’s a hard charge to prove, and the government’s track record hasn’t been the greatest.

It’s been almost a decade since the government tried to make a seditious conspiracy charge stick—against a small Christian militia accused of plotting to kill a police officer and attack attendees at his funeral in order to start a civil war—and it lost the case.

Although the government was able to show that the Hutaree had strong anti-government views, the judge ruled in U.S. v. Stone that “[O]ffensive speech and a conspiracy to do something other than forcibly resist a positive show of authority by the Federal Government is not enough to sustain a charge of seditious conspiracy.”

Whether or not prosecutors are able to prove their case that Rhodes and his followers intended to actually overthrow the government, the blowback will be felt far and wide by anyone whose political views can be labeled “anti-government.”

All of us are in danger.

In recent years, the government has used the phrase “domestic terrorist” interchangeably with “anti-government,” “extremist” and “terrorist” to describe anyone who might fall somewhere on a very broad spectrum of viewpoints that could be considered “dangerous.”

The ramifications are so far-reaching as to render almost every American with an opinion about the government or who knows someone with an opinion about the government an extremist in word, deed, thought or by association.

You see, the government doesn’t care if you or someone you know has a legitimate grievance. It doesn’t care if your criticisms are well-founded. And it certainly doesn’t care if you have a First Amendment right to speak truth to power.

What the government cares about is whether what you’re thinking or speaking or sharing or consuming as information has the potential to challenge its stranglehold on power.

Why else would the FBI, CIA, NSA and other government agencies be investing in corporate surveillance technologies that can mine constitutionally protected speech on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram?

Why else would the Biden Administration be likening those who share “false or misleading narratives and conspiracy theories, and other forms of mis- dis- and mal-information” to terrorists?

According to the Department of Homeland Security’s terrorism bulletin, “[T]hreat actors seek to exacerbate societal friction to sow discord and undermine public trust in government institutions to encourage unrest, which could potentially inspire acts of violence.”

By the government’s own definition, America’s founders would be considered domestic extremists for the heavily charged rhetoric they used to birth this nation.

All across the country, those who challenge the government’s authority with rhetoric no less colorful than the founders’ are being shut up, threatened with arrest or at the very least accused of being radicals, troublemakers, sovereign citizens, conspiratorialists or extremists.

Some are being fined.

In Punta Gorda, Florida, for instance, two political activists were fined $3000 for displaying protest flags with political messages that violated the city’s ordinance banning signs, clothing and other graphic displays containing words that the city deems “indecent.” The protest signs  displayed phrases which said “F@#k Policing 4 Profit,” “F@#k Trump,” “F@#k Biden,” and “F@#k Punta Gorda, trying to illegally kill free speech.”

Coming to the defense of the two activists, The Rutherford Institute challenged the City of Punta Gorda’s ban on indecent speech as a violation of the First Amendment’s safeguards for political speech.

We won the first round, with the Charlotte County Circuit Court ruling against the City, noting that the ordinance was clearly designed to chill political speech, which is protected under the First Amendment.

You see, the right of political free speech is the basis of all liberty.

No matter what one’s political persuasion might be, every American has a First Amendment right to protest government programs or policies with which they might disagree.

The right to disagree with and speak out against the government is the quintessential freedom.

Every individual has a right to speak truth to power using every nonviolent means available.

This is why the First Amendment is so critical. It gives the citizenry the right to speak freely, protest peacefully, expose government wrongdoing, and criticize the government without fear of reprisal.

Americans of all stripes would do well to remember that those who question the motives of government provide a necessary counterpoint to those who would blindly follow where politicians choose to lead.

We don’t have to agree with every criticism of the government, but we must defend the rights of all individuals to speak freely without fear of punishment or threat of banishment.

This is how freedom rises or falls.

As comedian Lenny Bruce, a lifelong champion of free speech, remarked, “If you can’t say ‘F@#k’ you can’t say, ‘F@#k’ the government.’”

Unfortunately, what we’re dealing with today is a government that wants to suppress dangerous words—words about its warring empire, words about its land grabs, words about its militarized police, words about its killing, its poisoning and its corruption—in order to keep its lies going.

If the government censors get their way, there will be no more First Amendment.

There will be no more Bill of Rights.

And, as I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People and in its fictional counterpart The Erik Blair Diaries, there will be no more freedom in America as we have known it.

WC: 1098

ABOUT JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His most recent books are the best-selling Battlefield America: The War on the American People, the award-winning A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, and a debut dystopian fiction novel, The Erik Blair Diaries. Whitehead can be contacted at staff@rutherford.org. Nisha Whitehead is the Executive Director of The Rutherford Institute. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.

Publication Guidelines / Reprint Permission

John W. Whitehead’s weekly commentaries are available for publication to newspapers and web publications at no charge. Please contact staff@rutherford.org to obtain reprint permission.

 

Donate

Copyright 2022 © The Rutherford Institute • Post Office Box 7482 • Charlottesville, VA 22906-7482 (434) 978-3888
The Rutherford Institute is a registered 501(c)(3) organization. All donations are fully deductible as a charitable contribution.