The year was 1798 when John Adams signed The Alien and Sedition Acts. Trouble was brewing across the ocean as the French built up their navy and eyed our young country. In response, the Federalist Congress passed the act and Adams signed it.

Protests followed immediately.

The Alien and Sedition Acts

In general, these acts were a power grab that both quieted dissenters and punished critics. 

First, The Naturalization Act increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years. Since the majority of immigrants supported Thomas Jefferson and his party, the Democratic-Republicans, this would make it harder for Adam’s opponents to secure votes.

Second, The Alien Friends Act allowed the president, at any time,  to imprison or deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.”

Third, the Alien Enemies Act authorized the president to deport or imprison any male citizen of a hostile nation above the age of fourteen during times of war.

Fourth, the Sedition Act allowed the government to imprison those who criticized the government, in speech or writing. In practice, this allowed Adams to imprison several newspaper owners who supported Jefferson and his party. 

Notably, Representative Matthew Lyon of Vermont was imprisoned for a letter that criticized President Adams, saying he was “…unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation, and self avarice.” 

(His constituents actually reelected him from his jail cell.)

Although the First Amendment was already in place, these laws were only overturned by Thomas Jefferson defeating the incumbent Adams in the next election. Many saw this victory as a firm rebuke to government restriction of free speech. 

The Sedition Act and the Alien Friends Act were allowed to expire in 1800 and 1801. Unfortunately, The Alien Enemies Act is still in effect in Title 50 of the United States Code and was actually used to imprison and deport people from Germany, Japan, and Italy during World War II. 

The Free Press

When the founding fathers drafted the constitution and the following First Amendment, freedom of speech was on their minds. In particular they had lived through England trying to control the spread of ideas through various taxes and punishments against printers. The idea of a government controlling the press was not a hypothetical idea. It was part of what inspired the birth of the new nation. 

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.

From The First Amendment

Yet today, the discussion around the First Amendment from Freedom of Speech to the Freedom of the Press has become clouded. To dissect the threat to our democracy, we must start by understanding the concept of the Free Press and contrasting that with other media theories.

Media Theories

Normative Theory: This theory concerns itself with what the media should do in society rather than what they actually do. This means that the media is a mirror for our communities, reflecting our actions, beliefs, principles and priorities.

Authoritarian Theory: This theory proposes that the ruling authority controls the media. Anyone who violates their view will be punished and their work will be censored. 

Free Press Theory: This theory relies on complete freedom of public expression. The government is not allowed to interfere with any aspect of the press. Instead, the market will resolve issues through economics.

Social Responsibility Theory: This theory modifies free press theory adding a layer of accountability to society. They are free from government interference. However, they are expected to self-regulate in favor of the public good.

Development Media Theory: This theory asserts that the media is free yet, subordinate to economic, social and political development.

Alternative Media Theory: This theory believes that media should be small-scale, non-commercial and closely linked to the local communities. It should aim to dialogue with social outgroups and oppose mainstream thought. 

America was founded on the Free Press Theory. Europe and England are moving more toward the Social Responsibility Theory. Dictatorships and Authoritarian regimes fit with Authoritarian Theory. Understanding that a variety of media theories exist gives further context to the state of the news in America. 

The Enemy of the People

On February 17, 2017, newly elected President Trump posted on twitter that he believed The New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, and CNN were “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.” In using that phrase, he resurrected a strong, historical term with disturbing implications. 

History of “the Enemy of the People”

  • The expression dates back to Roman times when The Senate declared emperor Nero a “public enemy”. Essentially, it marked him as someone who was going to hurt both the government and the populace.
  • During the French revolution, Robespierre stated: “The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death”
  • Lenin, during the peak of the Soviet Union, declared, “all leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, a party filled with enemies of the people, are hereby to be considered outlaws, and are to be arrested immediately and brought before the revolutionary court”
  • Mao Zedong stated, “At the present stage, the period of building socialism, the classes, strata and social groups which favour, support and work for the cause of socialist construction all come within the category of the people, while the social forces and groups which resist the socialist revolution and are hostile to or sabotage socialist construction are all enemies of the people.”
  • During Nazi Germany, the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer wrote that “The Jews don’t want to go to Madagascar – They cannot bear the climate. Jews are pests and disseminators of diseases. In whatever country they settle and spread themselves out, they produce the same effects as are produced in the human body by germs. … In former times sane people and sane leaders of the peoples made short shrift of enemies of the people. They had them either expelled or killed.”

The word has a history of “othering” a group to remove it of any power. Philosophically, it creates an “us versus them” zero-sum scenario. In modern times, dictators use it to suppress anyone who hold a threat to their power. 

When Donald Trump brought the phrase into his politics, he evoked a troubling concept: The Free Press should not be allowed to check his power through critique. 

Trump has repeated this assertion several times including at the Conservative Political Action Conference, various press meetings, and following his meetings with President Putin. 

His words have been considered to inspire violence, such as the mass shooting at a newspaper publisher and the MAGA Bomber, and to condone intimidation, as in the assasination of Washington Post reporterJamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government.

To date, he has been rebuked by the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and even the United States Senate.

A Check on Power

When journalists talk about the threat our First Amendment rights, they mean that we’re living in a dangerous information climate for journalists and citizens. We have a president that attacks reputable news coverage yet, uses the White House to spread doctored videos (like Jim Acosta’s press conference conflict and Nancy Pelosi’s “drunk” speech). this in an opinion segment, with biased commentators, Ari Melber discusses on the role of the press as a check on power.

At the same time, the press has lost American’s trust, and even the most level-headed information seekers are just worn out.

Almost seven-in-ten Americans (68%) feel worn out by the amount of news there is these days, compared with only three-in-ten who say they like the amount of news they get.  

Pew Research Center

Polling shows that We the People are not yet ready to give up our rights to a Free Press, despite our current president’s disdain for criticism. 

Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say they prefer to protect the public’s freedom to access and publish information online, including on social media, even if it means false information can also be published. Roughly four-in-ten (39%) fall the other way, preferring that the U.S. government take steps to restrict false information even if it limits those freedoms, according to a survey conducted Feb. 26-March 11, 2018, among 4,734 U.S. adults who are members of Pew Research Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel.

When the same question is posed about technology companies taking those steps, however, the balance changes. More U.S. adults (56%) favor technology companies taking steps to restrict false information, even if it limits the public’s freedom to access and publish information. By comparison, 42% prefer to protect those freedoms rather than have tech companies take action, even if it means the presence of some misinformation online.

He Can’t “Lock Them Up” or “Send Them Back”

The Alien and Sedition Acts, which were once seen as an early blip in American Democracy has come back into the national spotlight with the recent rhetoric of the right. From declarations that elected congresswomen (3 of whom were American born) should be sent back to their countries of ancestral origin, to suggestions that political opponents should go to jail, the spirit of President Adam’s overreach seems to have returned, albeit with a more flippant tone. 

But for now, the First Amendment still stands along with our right to exercise the power to speech, press and petition.