Andrew P. Napolitano
March 21, 2013
In 1798, when John Adams was president of the United States, the feds enacted four pieces of legislation called the Alien and Sedition Acts. One of these laws made it a federal crime to publish any false, scandalous or malicious writing â€“ even if true â€“ about the president or the federal government, notwithstanding the guarantee of free speech in the First Amendment.
The feds used these laws to torment their adversaries in the press and even successfully prosecuted a congressman who heavily criticized the president. Then-Vice President Thomas Jefferson vowed that if he became president, these abominable laws would expire. He did, and they did, but this became a lesson for future generations: The guarantees of personal freedom in the Constitution are only as valuable and reliable as is the fidelity to the Constitution of those to whom we have entrusted it for safekeeping.
We have entrusted the Constitution to all three branches of the federal government for safekeeping. But typically, they fail to do so. Presidents have repeatedly assaulted the freedom of speech many times throughout our history, and Congresses have looked the other way. Abraham Lincoln arrested Northerners who challenged the Civil War. Woodrow Wilson arrested Americans who challenged World War I. FDR arrested Americans he thought might not support World War II. LBJ and Richard Nixon used the FBI to harass hundreds whose anti-Vietnam protests frustrated them.