NASHVILLE, Tenn. — President Bush’s post-Sept. 11 warning that “freedom and fear are at war” was a chilling reality in the days following the worst terrorist attack on American soil, First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler said today.
But it wasn’t the first time — or the last — that those six words rang true, Seigenthaler said.
In “The Dangerous Dichotomy: Freedom and Fear,” the third in a series of addresses on the First Amendment, Seigenthaler discussed how it is during times when these two opposites are at war that Americans’ First Amendment rights are most in jeopardy.
These freedoms are often jeopardized with Americans’ own consent, Seigenthaler said, reiterating Benjamin Franklin’s assertion that those who “can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary [safety] deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
The first time after the American Revolution that fear put the citizenry’s First Amendment rights at risk was during the “Half War” with France, Seigenthaler said. In the face of a seemingly imminent French invasion and scathing criticism of President John Adams by newspaper editors who supported then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Under the law, anyone who wrote, published or voiced criticism of the president or Congress with the “intent to bring them into contempt or disrepute” or to excite public hatred against them would be guilty of seditious libel and could face up to two years in prison and a $2,000 fine. While the law required that such statements be “false and malicious” to be considered seditious, pro-Adams judges interpreted the act as outlawing any criticism of the president or Congress.
The first person charged under the act was a Vermont congressman, Matthew Lyon, who criticized Adams in his newspaper, The Scourge of Aristocracy, and in a letter to his constituents. Lyon was indicted, convicted and sentenced to four months in jail and fined $1,000.
A deluge of prosecutions (or persecutions as some historians describe it) and convictions followed, with newspaper editors, clergymen, doctors and even local tavern-goers falling victim.
“Freedom and fear were at war, and it was a bad time for free expression, a troubled time for a free press, a tragic time for the Constitution and the country,” Seigenthaler said.
In the wake of those prosecutions, public opinion, which initially supported the president when war fears were high, began to shift. Illustrating this shift, still-imprisoned Congressman Lyon was re-elected by a 4,700-2,700 vote. In addition, popular support began to swing from Adams to soon-to-be President Jefferson.
Freedom and fear have been at war many times since then, Seigenthaler said, including during the Civil War when President Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus and authorized the military to imprison those who criticized the war, the president or his policies; during World War I when Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1918, under which 2,100 people were prosecuted and most were convicted and sentenced to between 10 and 20 years in prison; and, more recently, during the current war in Iraq when thousands of immigrants have been arrested and hundreds deported from the U.S., most under the cover of secrecy.
“I recite this long history to demonstrate that we are the freest nation in the world, except when we’re afraid. And now we are again at war. … Freedom and fear are at war,” Seigenthaler said.
“There remains fear, even as we meet. That means our liberties remain at risk. Perhaps the most we can do is be aware of the past, alert to the present, (and) committed to the gifts of freedom we received from our visionary founders.”