Sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that tends toward insurrection against the established order. Sedition often includes subversion of a constitution and incitement of discontent towards, or resistance against established authority. Sedition may include any commotion, though not aimed at direct and open violence against the laws. Seditious words in writing are seditious libel. A seditionist is one who engages in or promotes the interest of sedition.
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Typically, sedition is not considered a subversive act, and the overt acts that may be prosecutable under sedition laws vary from one legal code to another. Where the history of these legal codes has been traced, there is also a record of the change in the definition of the elements constituting sedition at certain points in history. This overview has served to develop a sociological definition of sedition as well, within the study of state persecution.
History in common law jurisdictions
The term sedition in its modern meaning first appeared in the Elizabethan Era (c. 1590) as the "notion of inciting by words or writings disaffection towards the state or constituted authority". "Sedition complements treason and martial law: while treason controls primarily the privileged, ecclesiastical opponents, priests, and Jesuits, as well as certain commoners; and martial law frightens commoners, sedition frightens intellectuals."
In late 2006, the Commonwealth Government, under the Prime-Ministership of John Howard proposed plans to amend Australia's Crimes Act 1914, introducing laws that mean artists and writers may be jailed for up to seven years if their work was considered seditious or inspired sedition either deliberately or accidentally. Opponents of these laws have suggested that they could be used against legitimate dissent.
In 2006, the then Australian attorney-general Philip Ruddock had rejected calls by two reports — from a Senate committee and the Australian Law Reform Commission — to limit the sedition provisions in the Anti-Terrorism Act 2005 by requiring proof of intention to cause disaffection or violence. He had also brushed aside recommendations to curtail new clauses outlawing “urging conduct” that “assists” an “organisation or country engaged in armed hostilities” against the Australian military.
The new laws, inserted into the legislation December 2005, allow for the criminalization of basic expressions of political opposition, including supporting resistance to Australian military interventions, such as those in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Asia-Pacific region.
In Canada, sedition, which includes speaking seditious words, publishing a seditious libel, and being party to a seditious conspiracy, is an indictable offense, for which the maximum punishment is of fourteen years' imprisonment.
During World War II former Mayor of Montreal Camillien Houde campaigned against conscription in Canada. On 2 August 1940, Houde publicly urged the men of Quebec to ignore the National Registration Act. Three days later, he was placed under arrest by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police on charges of sedition. After being found guilty, he was confined in internment camps in Petawawa, Ontario, and Gagetown, New Brunswick, until 1944. Upon his release on 18 August 1944, he was greeted by a cheering crowd of 50,000 Montrealers and won back his position as the Mayor of Montreal in the election in 1944.
A Sedition Ordinance had existed in the territory since 1970, which was subsequently consolidated into the Crime Ordinance in 1972. According to the Crime Ordinance, a seditious intention is an intention to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the person of government, to excite inhabitants of Hong Kong to attempt to procure the alteration, otherwise than by lawful means, of any other matter in Hong Kong as by law established, to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against the administration of justice in Hong Kong, to raise discontent or disaffection amongst inhabitants of Hong Kong, to promote feelings of ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong, to incite persons to violence, or to counsel disobedience to law or to any lawful order.
Article 23 of the Basic Law requires the special administrative region to enact laws prohibiting any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China. The National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill was tabled in early 2003 to replace the existing laws regarding treason and sedition, and to introduce new laws to prohibit secessionist and subversive acts and theft of state secrets, and to prohibit political organisations from establishing overseas ties. The bill was shelved following massive opposition from the public.
In 2010, writer Arundhati Roy was sought to be charged with sedition for her comments on Kashmir and Maoists. Two individuals have been charged with sedition since 2007. Binayak Sen, an Indian doctor and public health specialist, and activist was found guilty of sedition. He is national Vice-President of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). On 24 December 2010, the Additional Sessions and District Court Judge B.P Varma Raipur found Binayak Sen, Naxal ideologue Narayan Sanyal (politician) and Kolkata businessman Piyush Guha, guilty of sedition for helping the Maoists in their fight against the state. They were sentenced to life imprisonment, but he got bail in Supreme Court on 16 April 2011.
On 10 September 2012, Aseem Trivedi, a political cartoonist, was sent to judicial custody till 24 September 2012 on charges of sedition over a series of cartoons against corruption. Trivedi was accused of uploading "ugly and obscene" content to his website, also accused of insulting the Constitution during an anti-corruption protest in Mumbai in 2011. Trivedi's arrest under sedition has been heavily criticised in India. The Press Council of India (PCI) termed it a "stupid" move.
In February 2016, JNU student union president Kanhaiya Kumar was arrested on charges of Sedition & raising voice for the "tukde tukde gang" under section 124-A of Indian Penal Code (which was part of the sedition laws implemented by the British Rule). His arrest raised political turmoil in the country with academicians and activists marching and protesting against this move by the government. He was released on interim bail on 2 March 2016 for a lack of conclusive evidence.
On 17 August 2016, Amnesty International India was booked in a case of "sedition" and "promoting enmity" by Bengaluru police. A complaint was filed by ABVP, an all India student organisation affiliated to Nationalists RSS.
In September 2018, Divya Spandana, the Congress Social Media chief was booked for sedition for calling Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, a thief. On 13 January 2019, The Delhi Police filed a chargesheet on Monday against former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union (JNUSU) president Kanhaiya Kumar and others in a sedition case lodge in 2016.
On 10 January 2019, a sedition case was registered suo-motto against Noted Cambridge Scholar and Assamese Intellectual Dr Hiren Gohain and 2 others for their remarks against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Dr. Gohain (80) called the move “a desperate attempt by a cornered government.”
The publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.
Advocates for freedom of speech have argued that this constraint ought to be removed; any constitutional amendment requires a referendum. The thirty-seventh amendment of the constitution removed the offence of blasphemy.
The law of the Republic of Ireland since the 1922 independence of the Irish Free State inherited earlier common law principles based on English law. The crime of seditious libel was presumed to persist, although last prosecuted in 1901. After the common law offence of blasphemous libel was ruled in 1999 to be incompatible with the constitution's guarantee of freedom of speech, jurists argued that seditious libel was similarly unconstitutional. Both blasphemous libel and seditious libel were abolished by the Defamation Act 2009, which also created new crime of "publication or utterance of blasphemous matter" to fulfil the constitutional requirement with regard to blasphemy. No new offence was created for sedition in 2009; this was in line with the recommendations of a 1991 consultation paper on libel by the Law Reform Commission (LRC) on the basis that several statutes define offences which are tantamount to sedition.
The Offences against the State Act 1939 created the offences of making, distributing, and possessing a "seditious document". The LRC suggests that "sedition", left undefined by the constitution, might be implicitly defined by the 1939 act's definition of a "seditious document" as one:
- consisting of or containing matter calculated or tending to undermine the public order or the authority of the State, or
- which alleges, implies, or suggests or is calculated to suggest that the government functioning under the Constitution is not the lawful government of the State or that there is :in existence in the State any body or organisation not functioning under the Constitution which is entitled to be recognized as being the government of the country, or
- which alleges, implies, or suggests or is calculated to suggest that the military forces maintained under the Constitution are not the lawful military forces of the State, or that there is in existence in the State a body or organisation not established and maintained by virtue of the Constitution which is entitled to be recognised as a military force, or
- in which words, abbreviations, or symbols referable to a military body are used in referring to an unlawful organisation
These provisions were largely aimed at Irish republican legitimatists who believed the 1922 Free State was a usurpation of the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916 and again in 1919. The fourth provision made the use of the names "Irish Republican Army" and "Óglaigh na hÉireann" seditious as they were regarded as rightfully used by the Irish Defence Forces. The LRC notes that advocating violence is not essential for a document to be seditious.
The LRC also notes that Section 1A of the Broadcasting Authority Act 1960 (inserted in 1976) prohibited broadcasting of "anything which may reasonably be regarded as being likely to promote, or incite to, crime or as tending to undermine the authority of the State". The 1960 act has since been replaced by the Broadcasting Act 2009, section 39 of which obliges broadcaster not to broadcast "anything which may reasonably be regarded as causing harm or offence, or as being likely to promote, or incite to, crime or as tending to undermine the authority of the State".
Sedition charges were not uncommon in New Zealand early in the 20th century. For instance, the future Prime Minister Peter Fraser had been convicted of sedition in his youth for arguing against conscription during World War I, and was imprisoned for a year. Perhaps ironically, Fraser re-introduced the conscription of troops as the Prime Minister during World War II.
In New Zealand's first sedition trial in decades, Tim Selwyn was convicted of sedition (section 83 of the Crimes Act 1961) on 8 June 2006. Shortly after, in September 2006, the New Zealand Police laid a sedition charge against a Rotorua youth, who was also charged with threatening to kill. The Police withdrew the sedition charge when the youth agreed to plead guilty on the other charge.
In March 2007, Mark Paul Deason, the manager of a tavern near the University of Otago, was charged with seditious intent although he was later granted diversion when he pleaded guilty to publishing a document which encourages public disorder. Deason ran a promotion for his tavern that offered one litre of beer for one litre of petrol where at the end of the promotion, the prize would have been a couch soaked in the petrol. It is presumed the intent was for the couch to be burned — a popular university student prank. Police also applied for Deason's liquor license to be revoked.
Following a recommendation from the New Zealand Law Commission, the New Zealand government announced on 7 May 2007 that the sedition law would be repealed. The Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Act 2007 was passed on 24 October 2007, and entered into force on 1 January 2008.
Russell Campbell made a documentary regarding conscientious objectors in New Zealand called Sedition.
…a seditious intention is an intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or to exite disaffection against the person of His Majesty, his heirs or successors, or the government and constitution of the United Kingdom, as by law established, or either House of Parliament, or the administration of justice, or to excite His Majesty's subjects to attempt otherwise than by lawful means, the alteration of any matter in Church or State by law established, or to incite any person to commit any crime in disturbance of the peace, or to raise discontent or disaffection amongst His Majesty's subjects, or to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of such subjects.
An intention to show that His Majesty has been misled or mistaken in his measures, or to point out errors or defects in the government or constitution as by law established, with a view to their reformation, or to excite His Majesty's subjects to attempt by lawful means the alteration of any matter in Church or State by law established, or to point out, in order to secure their removal, matters which are producing, or have a tendency to produce, feelings of hatred and ill-will between classes of His Majesty's subjects, is not a seditious intention.
Stephen in his "History of the Criminal Law of England" accepted the view that a seditious libel was nothing short of a direct incitement to disorder and violence. He stated that the modern view of the law was plainly and fully set out by Littledale J. in Collins. In that case the jury were instructed that they could convict of seditious libel only if they were satisfied that the defendant "meant that the people should make use of physical force as their own resource to obtain justice, and meant to excite the people to take the power in to their own hands, and meant to excite them to tumult and disorder."
The last prosecution for sedition in the United Kingdom was in 1972, when three people were charged with seditious conspiracy and uttering seditious words for attempting to recruit people to travel to Northern Ireland to fight in support of Republicans. The seditious conspiracy charge was dropped, but the men received suspended sentences for uttering seditious words and for offences against the Public Order Act.
In 1977, a Law Commission working paper recommended that the common law offence of sedition in England and Wales be abolished. They said that they thought that this offence was redundant and that it was not necessary to have any offence of sedition. However this proposal was not implemented until 2009, when sedition and seditious libel (as common law offences) were abolished by section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (with effect on 12 January 2010). Sedition by an alien is still an offence under section 3 of the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919.
In Scotland, section 51 of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010 abolished the common law offences of sedition and leasing-making with effect from 28 March 2011.
President John Adams signed into law the Sedition Act of 1798, which set out punishments of up to two years of imprisonment for "opposing or resisting any law of the United States" or writing or publishing "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" about the President or the U.S. Congress (though not the office of the Vice-President, then occupied by Adams' political opponent Thomas Jefferson). This Act of Congress was allowed to expire in 1801 after Jefferson's election to the Presidency; Jefferson pardoned those still serving sentences, and fines were repaid by the government. This law was never appealed to the United States Supreme Court (which had not yet established its right to invalidate laws passed by Congress) but opponents claimed it was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
In the Espionage Act of 1917, Section 3 made it a federal crime, punishable by up to 20 years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $10,000, to willfully spread false news of the American army or navy with an intent to disrupt its operations, to foment mutiny in their ranks, or to obstruct recruiting. This Act of Congress was amended by the Sedition Act of 1918, which expanded the scope of the Espionage Act to any statement criticizing the Government of the United States. These laws were upheld by the Supreme Court in the 1919 decisions Schenck v. United States (concerning distribution of flyers urging men to resist the draft) and Abrams v. United States (concerning leaflets urging cessation of weapons production). Schenck led to the "shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater" explanation of the limits of free speech. The laws were largely repealed in 1921, leaving laws forbidding foreign espionage in the United States and allowing military censorship of sensitive material.
In 1940, the Alien Registration Act, or "Smith Act", was passed, which made it a federal crime to advocate or to teach the desirability of overthrowing the United States Government, or to be a member of any organization which does the same. It was often used against Communist Party organizations. This Act was invoked in three major cases, one of which against the Socialist Worker's Party in Minneapolis in 1941, resulting in 23 convictions, and again in what became known as the Great Sedition Trial of 1944 in which a number of pro-Nazi figures were indicted but released when the prosecution ended in a mistrial. Also, a series of trials of 140 leaders of the Communist Party USA also relied upon the terms of the "Smith Act"—beginning in 1949—and lasting until 1957. Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the convictions of 11 CPUSA leaders in 1951 in Dennis v. United States, that same Court reversed itself in 1957 in the case of Yates v. United States, by ruling that teaching an ideal, no matter how harmful it may seem, does not equal advocating or planning its implementation. Although unused since at least 1961, the "Smith Act" remains a Federal law.
There was, however, a brief attempt to use the sedition laws against protesters of the Vietnam War. On 17 October 1967, two demonstrators, including then Marin County resident Al Wasserman, while engaged in a "sit-in" at the Army Induction Center in Oakland, California, were arrested and charged with sedition by deputy US. Marshal Richard St. Germain. U.S. Attorney Cecil Poole changed the charge to trespassing. Poole said, "three guys (according to Mr. Wasserman there were only 2) reaching up and touching the leg of an inductee, and that's conspiracy to commit sedition? That's ridiculous!" The inductees were in the process of physically stepping on the demonstrators as they attempted to enter the building, and the demonstrators were trying to protect themselves from the inductees' feet. Attorney Poole later added, "We'll decide what to prosecute, not marshals."
In 1981, Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican Nationalist and Vietnam war veteran, was convicted and sentenced to 70 years in prison for seditious conspiracy and various other offenses. He was among the 16 Puerto Rican nationalists offered conditional clemency by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1999, but he rejected the offer. His sister, Zenaida López, said he refused the offer because on parole, he would be in "prison outside prison". The clemency agreement required him to renounce the use of terrorism, including use or advocacy of the use of violence, to achieve their aim of independence for Puerto Rico. Congressman Pedro Pierluisi has stated that "the primary reason that López Rivera did not accept the clemency offer extended to him in 1999 was because it had not also been extended to certain fellow [Puerto Rico independence movement] prisoners, including Mr. Torres". (Torres was subsequently released from prison in July 2010.)
In 1987, fourteen white supremacists were indicted by a federal grand jury on charges filed by the U.S. Department of Justice against a seditious conspiracy between July 1983 and March 1985. Some alleged conspirators were serving time for overt acts, such as the crimes committed by The Order. Others such as Louis Beam and Richard Butler were charged for their speech seen as spurring on the overt acts by the others. In April 1988, a federal jury in Arkansas acquitted all the accused of charges of seditious conspiracy.
Laura Berg, a nurse at a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in New Mexico was investigated for sedition in September 2005 after writing a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, accusing several national leaders of criminal negligence. Though their action was later deemed unwarranted by the director of Veteran Affairs, local human resources personnel took it upon themselves to request an FBI investigation. Ms. Berg was represented by the ACLU. Charges were dropped in 2006.
On 28 March 2010, nine members of the Hutaree militia were arrested and charged with crimes including seditious conspiracy. In August, 2012, U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts dismissed all serious charges against the remaining defendants, including sedition, and rebuked prosecutors for bringing the case. One man, Jacob Ward, was found not competent to stand trial. Three of the men, Joshua John Clough, David Brian Stone Sr., the leader of the group, and his son Joshua Stone, pleaded guilty to weapons charges.
Sedition is a punishable offense under Article 94 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Civil law jurisdictions
Volksverhetzung ("incitement of the people") is a legal concept in Germany and some Nordic countries. It is sometimes loosely translated as sedition, although the law bans the incitement of hatred against a segment of the population such as a particular race or religion.
After the 2017–18 Spanish constitutional crisis some of the leaders of the Catalan independence movement were charged with several criminal offences, notably rebellion and sedition. An offence similar to the Spanish offence of rebellion did not exist in Germany and the European Arrest Warrant against Carles Puigdemont was withdrawn, allowing him to remain in Belgium. Other leaders who were convicted of sedition received 9-13 years in prison as established in Spanish penal code by a unanimous sentence by Spanish Supreme Court during the October 2019 trial.
- Coup d'état
- Criminal anarchy
- Free speech
- Guerrilla warfare
- Kangaroo court
- Police state
- Political repression
- Resistance movement
- Sedition Act (disambiguation)
- Seditious libel
- One-party state
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- Diversion over petrol-soaked couch promo, Crime.co.nz, 29 March 2007
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- section 3, Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919
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- Sentencia del procés: El Supremo acuerda condenar de forma unánime por sedición a los líderes del 1-O
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