If you're learning about the Constitution in school, you're likely to appreciate that the First Amendment guarantees your right to free speech. But never confuse this wondrous right with seditious speech, which urges people to launch a rebellion against a government entity.

The Distinction

Seditious speech, often angry and vitriolic, is aimed at inflaming passions and instigating discontent until the words eventually spawn a revolution, often with violence. In 1919, the Supreme Court ruled that people who participate in seditious speech could be punished if they pose a “clear and present danger” to others.

A History Lesson

President John Adams worked with Congress to pass the Sedition Act of 1798. They were spurred by the fear that if America went to war with France, Americans loyal to our former ally would revolt against the fledgling United States. The aggressive act sought to punish people who “said or published anything false, scandalous, or malicious against the federal government, Congress or the president,” according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation. Several dozen people were punished under the act, but it remained controversial, with Virginia even threatening to secede from the country over it. The Sedition Act expired in 1801, and President Thomas Jefferson eventually pardoned all those who had been convicted under it.

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