Former GOP congressman predicts new Sedition Act

By David Edwards
Monday, December 27, 2010 10:31 EDT
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Desire to stop secrets outlet WikiLeaks from disclosing more US documents could lead to a new Sedition Act, according to former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA).

Try as they might, US officials will not be able to convict WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange under current laws and will resort to passing new draconian measures, Barr explained in a recent column.

Signed into law in 1798 by President John Adams, the Sedition Act made it a crime to publish “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government.

Of the 25 people charged with violating the Sedition Act, most were newspaper editors. The law expired in 1801 and those convicted were pardoned by President Thomas Jefferson.

“Jefferson was, of course, right in his view of this law (which expired before its constitutionality could be determined by the Supreme Court),” Barr wrote. “His wisdom is well-needed today to quell the blood thirst of those clamoring for Assange’s head because of WikiLeaks’ release of cables and e-mails critical of and embarrassing to, the government.”

The US Department of Justice has said it was investigating whether it could charge Assange under the Espionage Act or with criminal conspiracy, but no formal charges have yet been issued.

“Many legal scholars, not prone to the pressures of public sentiment (which polls suggest strongly supports prosecuting Assange), correctly argue there simply is no proper basis for a case against the WikiLeaks founder under the Espionage Act, federal conspiracy laws, or other statutes,” Barr noted.

“Reading the Espionage Act the way Assange’s critics would have us do, would open a Pandora’s Box of virtually unlimited reach,” he wrote.

“By its terms, it criminalizes not merely the disclosure of national defense information by organizations such as Wikileaks, but also the reporting on that information by countless news organizations,” Benjamin Wittes, a legal analyst from the Brookings Institution, explained on his blog. “It also criminalizes all casual discussions of such disclosures by persons not authorized to receive them to other persons not authorized to receive them–in other words, all tweets sending around those countless news stories, all blogging on them, and all dinner party conversations about their contents.”

“Taken at its word, the Espionage Act makes felons of us all,” he added.

“Yet such ridiculously broad expansion of federal law, simply to pillory a person who clearly delights in embarrassing the government, would seem to be what some in Washington, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) and Rep. Peter King (R-NY), just might have in mind,” Barr continued.

“And, unfortunately, there are many in the executive branch who appear to be moving in just such direction; actively constructing what may become a conspiracy case against Assange.”

“We can only hope Jefferson’s wisdom and understanding will speak from across the ages to shine the bright light of constitutional truth on such dark plans,” he concluded.

David Edwards
David Edwards
David Edwards has served as an editor at Raw Story since 2006. His work can also be found at Crooks & Liars, and he's also been published at The BRAD BLOG. He came to Raw Story after working as a network manager for the state of North Carolina and as as engineer developing enterprise resource planning software. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidEdwards.
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