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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2008

Sedition at UWM

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When we hear that sedition is raging out of control at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, that it’s prompting student government to ban free speech on campus, citizens everywhere have a right to be alarmed. What’s alarming, of course, is the apparent ignorance of many of today’s student leaders at our local university about the principles of democracy and the Constitution of the United States.

It’s true, as someone apparently found out in a freshman history class, that 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 that the original Sedition Act provoked such outrage 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.

Leaders have passed lots of bad laws during various periods of political repression in our history. Fortunately, the UWM Student Association hasn’t gotten to 1942 in their history books, when President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

We would hate for the UWM Student Association to start putting students they don’t like into concentration camps. So just what kind of sedition, or incitement to rebellion, has broken out at UWM, prompting the university’s student government to suspend free speech? Are Panther cheerleaders stockpiling arms and threatening to overthrow the university by force? Worse. The campus newspaper has criticized the Student Association. And if the UWM Post doesn’t stop saying hurtful things about student politicians, the Student Association has no choice but to end free speech on campus.

Under their Sedition Act, the student government would have the power to issue cease-and-desist orders to anyone making “libelous and slanderous communications regarding the Student Association”—you know, saying bad stuff about them.

If the “aforementioned entities” (legal language intended to make the absurd act sound like a real law) continue their criticism of student government, “the Student Association shall pursue civil relief against said parties.” Or go to a party or something. Fortunately, at least one student leader, Student Association President Rob Grover, knew enough about the First Amendment and the protection of free speech in America to veto the student sedition act.

Setting a Bad Example
It would be easy to use the passage of such a ludicrous measure as an example of the dumbing down of higher education. But there is plenty of blame to go around since 9/11 for our failure to teach young people, and a whole lot of older people, about the importance of protecting our constitutional rights within a democracy.

When I was growing up in Indiana, we were shown scary, black-and-white propaganda films about what would happen if the godless Communists ever took over America. We saw people hauled off to jail, where they were held without trial. They had no access to attorneys. There were no charges, and thus no opportunities to argue their innocence.

Oh, yeah. They would be tortured, too. Those frightening films made such an impression on me as a young Hoosier that I was absolutely amazed when our own government started implementing the very same horrific practices at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and secret U.S. gulags somewhere in Eastern Europe.

More frightening, many Americans seem perfectly willing to support the suspension of our Constitution. Could the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover have been right? Have we been secretly infiltrated by Communists, the enemy within? Is George Bush the Manchurian candidate? Ari Fleischer, Bush’s former press secretary, set the example for the UWM student government when he warned in the wake of 9/11 that Americans should be careful what they say.

When Congress learned that the Bush administration had been illegally wiretapping Americans without court authorization, it never seriously debated bringing charges against the president for breaking the law. Instead, the Senate and the House of Representatives are now arguing over how to make the president’s crimes retroactively legal and how to protect telephone companies from being sued as accomplices in the illegal wiretaps.

Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold is one of the few to recognize the magnitude of the Bush administration’s crimes against democracy. But if most of our real elected representatives don’t understand the principles of democracy, how can we expect pretend college politicians to know any better? What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.