In the midst of reading Charles Slack’s excellent book, “Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits Who Saved Free Speech,” that I stumbled across at a very nice Half Price Books store in Louisville last week, the thought occurred to me that maybe it’s time for the Republican-controlled Congress to re-introduce a crucial portion of The Alien and Sedition Acts.

Surely, President Trump – given many of his own statements – would merrily sign off on such legislation.

For a history refresher from Wikipedia, The Alien and Sedition Acts were four bills passed by the Federalist-dominated fifth Congress and signed into law by second President John Adams in 1798.

Three of the acts were repealed after the Democratic-Republican Party (really!) of third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson came to power.

However, the Alien Enemies Act remained in effect. It was revised in 1918 during World War I, and was used by President Franklin Roosevelt to imprison Japanese, German, and Italian aliens during World War II. The act also was used by President Harry Truman to continue to imprison and deport aliens of the formerly hostile nations. In 1948, the Supreme Court determined that presidential powers under the acts continued after cessation of hostilities until there was a peace treaty with the hostile nation. The revised Alien Enemies Act remains in effect today.

President Adams and the Federalists believed the Sedition Act laws strengthened national security. Others argued that they were an attempt to suppress voters who disagreed with the Federalist Party.

Much more important, though, the Sedition Act clearly violated the right of freedom of speech as stated in the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The Sedition Act restricted speech that was critical of the federal government. In fact, the Sedition Act caused the prosecution and conviction of a number of Jeffersonian newspaper owners who openly disagreed with the government. To their “credit,” Federalists allowed people who were accused of violating the sedition laws to use truth as a defense.

How about that.

“Truth,” in political-speak, as reasonable minds ought to know, can be subjective. Let’s just go back to President Trump’s well-publicized Feb. 16 press conference. In the course of his presser, the president stated he had received more Electoral College votes than any president since Ronald Reagan. Is it then “fake news” to report the president’s words as spoken? Or, is it “fake news” to report the truth, thus revealing the president’s obvious lie?

What’s a reporter to do without violating the Sedition Act?

Moreover, if an elected official in such a high capacity states “A” with all sincerity on any given topic on Monday, but switches to “Z” on the same topic by Friday, is the Monday reporter guilty of “fake news,” or is it the Friday reporter?

Just to be safe, bring back the Sedition Act and hang 'em high, all.

Do today’s mainstream media lean left? In my opinion, it’s obvious they do. So what? Let the free market sort it out. I do not get my national and world news from CNN or MSNBC or The New York Times. Nonetheless, they all have the same constitutional rights that the rest of us enjoy. Don’t lose sight of that.

From an online preview of “Liberty’s First Crisis,” (available at, Slack tell his readers: “From a loudmouth in a bar to a firebrand politician to Benjamin Franklin’s own grandson, those victimized by the Sedition Act were as varied as the country’s citizenry. But Americans refused to let their freedoms be so easily dismissed: They penned fiery editorials, signed petitions, and raised ‘liberty poles,’ while Vice President Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drew up the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (states’ rights), arguing that the Federalist government had gone one step too far.”

One of the Sedition Act’s early victims was former slave (indentured servant, if you prefer), Irishman Matthew Lyon (other misfits included Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Ben Franklin; James Callender, the first to write about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ children; and Thomas Cooper, who challenged John Adams’ constitutional authority to declare April 25 a “national day of fasting and prayer”).

As Slack writes, “Everything Federalists feared, hated, and scorned could be summed up in three words: ‘Congressman Matthew Lyon.’”

Lyon was one of Slack’s more prominent misfits, actually winning congressional re-election from a jail cell – while incarcerated in violation and protest of the Sedition Act.

In 1764, after arriving from Ireland, Lyon was sold for two bulls. He would boast of this testament to his personal worth and redemption following the sale to a Connecticut farmer.

Slack writes about the future congressman: “Everything about his life was outsized – his ambition, his intelligence, his enemies, and his flaws. He never let an insult pass without redeeming it twofold. Put simply, Matthew Lyon couldn’t keep his mouth shut. It was this quality above all others that resulted in his greatest contribution to the American experiment.”

Yes, former Irish slave and American jailbird-turned-Congressman Matt Lyon helped save the right to free speech in the Bill of Rights. Who knew?

And then there was Luther Baldwin, who was labeled “a Republican monster.”

He was charged as follows: “{Baldwin} maliciously, diabolically, seditiously, wickedly and scandalously did utter and with a loud voice pronounce, assert, and affirm that the president of the United States was a ‘damned rascal and ought to have his arse kicked.’”

Surely, some of our own HCP columnists have written far worse about former U.S. presidents and other public officials. I’m sure I have, and hope to do so again – but only as warranted by their actions and behavior. Barring a return of the Sedition Act, of course.

(Hell, who am I kidding? I’d love to be the first one to violate the new 2017 Sedition Act. By the way, King Midas really does have donkey ears. Ass well he should.)

Unlike Matthew Lyon, Luther Baldwin was not a member of Congress or a scholar or even a lowly printer. He was simply a common man who got drunk and criticized the president. But like Lyon, Baldwin was jailed for exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.

Prior to violating the Sedition Act, Baldwin admirably fought for the United States against the British in the Revolutionary War and raided a British warship in 1782. His thanks? A jail sentence for mocking the president.

“To Republicans, Baldwin’s year-plus legal ordeal over a harmless remark harkened chillingly back to Old World lése-majesté (injured majesty) laws that for centuries had dictated harsh punishment for any utterance thought to insult the dignity of a monarch.” (A century earlier, Algernon Sidney met with the executioner for simply imagining the death of King Charles II.)

The Sedition Act was to many, as one writer noted, nothing more than the right to “lick the feet of our well-born masters.”

“Yet,” Slack writes, “Editors were sincere and reasonable in wondering: If Baldwin’s flippant remark was prosecutable, how could anyone feel safe? What had the struggle for liberty been about?”

The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

First is first for a reason. The First Amendment is why Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito is right, and former president and lawyer Barack Obama is wrong on the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

“Congress shall make no law…”

At a 2012 D.C. dinner for – gotta love the irony – the Federalist Society, Justice Alito told the 1,500 in attendance: “The question is whether speech that goes to the very heart of government should be limited to certain preferred corporations – namely, media corporations. Surely, the idea that the First Amendment protects only certain privileged voices should be disturbing to anybody who believes in free speech."

One would think.

From “Liberty’s First Crisis,” we learn that on March 3, 1801, the Sedition Act quietly expired after two years, seven months and 17 days. There might be a Johnny Paycheck song in there somewhere. Maybe his was “11 months and 29 days,” I can’t remember.

If Trump and his congressional cohorts hurry, they just might bring back the Sedition Act on the 216th anniversary of its just demise. If so, our online comments on all things politics will come to a screeching halt. Or subject to prosecution upon publication.

Go ahead, Don John, & Congress, bring back the Sedition Act. I double-dog dare you. Our readers might think your collective arses ought to be kicked.

Congress shall make no law…

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.