This week, The New York Times reported that the efforts of several faculty and students at the University of Montana to secure official pardons for those convicted under the law will be successful:
The convictions will be undone on Wednesday when Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a descendant of ethnic Germans who migrated here from Russia in 1909, posthumously pardons 75 men and three women. One man was pardoned shortly after the war.
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"I'm going to say what Gov. Sam Stewart should have said," Mr. Schweitzer said, referring to the man who signed the sedition legislation into law in 1918. "I'm sorry, forgive me, and God bless America, because we can criticize our government."
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The sedition law, which made it a crime to say or publish anything "disloyal, profane, violent, scurrilous, contemptuous or abusive" about the government, soldiers or the American flag, was unanimously passed by the Legislature in February 1918. It expired when the war ended, [University of Montana School of Journalism Director of Graduate Studies Clemens P.] Work said.
During that time, though Germans were the largest ethnic group in Montana, it was also illegal to speak German, and books written in it were banned. Local groups called third-degree committees were formed to ferret out people not supportive of the war, especially those who did not buy Liberty Bonds.
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Twenty-seven states had sedition laws during World War I. Montana's became the template for a federal law, enacted by Congress later in 1918. More than 30 Montanans were arrested under the federal law, though none were convicted, according to the Montana Sedition Project, which Mr. Work directs.
I'm glad that the governor will take this step; it's important symbolically for all Montanans and, according to the Times article, meaningful for the descendants of those convicted so long ago.
Notwithstanding, I think that those commentators who equate the official repression of unpatriotic speech with a more generalized societal disfavor of unpatriotic speech are misguided. The former is dangerous and unconstitutional; the latter is an entirely appropriate promotion of widely-held group norms. Protecting the constitutional right of each American to virulently criticize our nation's government during wartime does not require that we as a society actively encourage or reward such criticism.
In a recent speech, erstwhile presidential candidate Senator John Kerry quoted Thomas Jefferson as saying, "Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism." Amongst others, columnist Mark Steyn pointed out that Jefferson said nothing of the kind:
According to the Jefferson Library: "There are a number of quotes that we do not find in Thomas Jefferson's correspondence or other writings; in such cases, Jefferson should not be cited as the source. Among the most common of these spurious Jefferson quotes are: 'Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.' "
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Thomas Jefferson would never have said anything half so witless. There is no virtue in dissent per se. When John F. Kennedy said, "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty" . . . I could have yelled out, "Hey, screw you, loser." It would have been "dissent," but it wouldn't have been patriotic, and it's certainly not a useful contribution to the debate . . . .
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It's truer to say that these days patriotism is the highest form of dissent -- against a culture where the media award each other Pulitzers for damaging national security, and the only way a soldier's mom can become a household name is if she's a Bush-is-the-real-terrorist kook like Cindy Sheehan, and our grade schools' claims to teach our children about America, "warts and all," has dwindled down into teaching them all the warts and nothing else.
Dissent is not sedition -- nothing should be in this country -- but it is not necessarily patriotic.