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What Is Sedition?

There is a fine line that governments try to walk between allowing anti-war protests and claiming acts of sedition.
Sedition laws were used to prosecute abolitionists in the south before and during the U.S. Civil War.
Prosecution for acts of sedition is relatively rare, as nations like the United States place a priority on protecting peaceful protest rights.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2014
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Sedition is defined as actions or words intended to lead to or encourage the overthrow of a state. Most nations have laws against sedition, although nations which value free speech have tried to protect their citizens' right to criticize their governments, differentiating it from, for example, anti-war protests. This has not always been the case, however, and numerous nations have a history of oppressive anti-sedition laws which have been used to prosecute social minorities. Some countries also have very oppressive laws that are designed to suppress opposition parties or candidates, sometimes with very serious penalties.

Treason is sometimes confused with sedition, but the two crimes are actually different. Sedition encourages overthrow, but the person who commits it does not actively participate in situations designed to lead to overthrow of the government. Holding a revolutionary meeting in your home is sedition; sheltering soldiers of an enemy is treason. A treason conviction requires clear evidence that the criminal actively engaged in a scheme to destabilize the current government, and that he or she is a citizen of the nation being threatened. The two crimes are punished differently, and treason is generally regarded to be more serious.

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In the United States, several sedition laws have been enacted and later struck down, including the Sedition Act of 1798 and the Espionage Act of 1917, which was designed to put a stop to anti-war speeches and protests. In the American South, the Confederacy used such laws to prosecute abolitionists before and during the Civil War. In other nations, laws vary, depending on who is in power, and the type of government in place. In modern times, several nations, including Australia and the United States, have included language about sedition in laws designed to combat terrorism.

Prosecution for an act of sedition is relatively rare, but does happen. Sometimes individual terrorists are charged with it because, technically, they are not committing treason, since the act of violence is not being committed against their own nation. In nations that protect speech, making an anti-government speech or writing about the government is not considered sedition, unless the author takes the additional step of encouraging the audience to rebel. Lobbying for a legal change of government through election or petition is also protected, and citizens are also usually free to protest or speak out about flaws within their governments.

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Clairdelune
Post 3

@lovealot - It seems like the acts of sedition and treason were much more common during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. There were many gatherings and secret meetings in homes where there were discussions about joining the rebels or being loyal to England. And before and during the Civil War,northerners were siding with the south and vice versa.

During both wars, there were treason activities, each side helping someone on the opposite side,defying their government. I don't know how many of these cases were discovered and prosecuted.

During the 1950s, when our government was terrified of communism, the government watched closely for sedition, where there was serious threats of communism seeping into the country.

lovealot
Post 2

What are the main differences between sedition and treason? I know that in countries like the Soviet Union, the least bit of criticism of the government could have landed you in a work camp in Siberia. So in that country during the Cold War, an act of treason would be something like sharing government secrets with other governments.

But in the U.S. I think that they look at sedition and treason a little bit different.

anon53031
Post 1

Were the politicians of the Confederacy guilty of sedition when they proposed secession? How does that compare with state legislature proposals to "opt out" of federal laws?

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