What Is Sedition? Definition and Examples

Black and white photo of a man speaking on a stage with a flag draped behind him
Activist Eugene V. Debs was convicted of sedition in 1918.

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Sedition is the act of inciting a revolt or coup d'etat against a legally established government with the intent of destroying or overthrowing it. In the United States, sedition is a serious federal felony punishable by fines and up to 20 years in prison. The following provides an overview of this particular crime against the government and how it compares to the act of treason. 

Sedition Definition

As established under Title 18 of the U.S. Code, which also deals with treason, rebellion, and similar offenses, sedition is defined as the federal crime of advocating for an uprising against or overthrow of the government through speech, publication, or organization. In most cases, sedition involves participating in a conspiracy to prevent the government from conducting its legally assigned duties in a manner that goes beyond the constitutionally protected expression of opinion or protest against government policy.

Seditious Conspiracy

A National Guardsman walks past a poster seeking information on the U.S. Capitol attack on January 19, 2021.
A National Guardsman walks past a poster seeking information on the U.S. Capitol attack on January 19, 2021. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Typically included under the umbrella term of “sedition,” the crime of seditious conspiracy is defined by federal law at 18 U.S.C. § 2384. According to this statute, seditious conspiracy is committed whenever two or more persons in any state or U.S. territory conspire to:

  • overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them;
  • oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States; or
  • by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof.

Individuals commit seditious conspiracy when they are proven to have willfully advocated for the violent overthrow of the federal government by publishing materials advocating the overthrow of the government by force, or by organizing groups of people to overthrow or interfere with the government by force.

In 1937, for example, Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos and nine accomplices were convicted of seditious conspiracy and sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to overthrow the U.S. government in Puerto Rico in an attempt to gain independence.

More recently, in 2010, nine members of the “Hutaree” militia group in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana were charged with seditious conspiracy for planning to kill federal, state, and local law enforcement officers and then bomb their funerals. They were acquitted in 2012 due to insufficient evidence.

On January 13, 2021, a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. stated that his office was considering filing seditious conspiracy charges against some of the people arrested for taking part in the January 6, 2021 invasion of the U.S. Capitol building in an attempt to prevent the U.S. Congress from carrying out its constitutional duty of certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Sedition Laws and Freedom of Speech

Though sedition is a serious crime in the United States, punishable under U.S. federal law at 18 U.S.C. § 2384 dealing with seditious conspiracy and 18 U.S.C. § 2385 outlawing advocating the overthrow of the federal government by force, prosecutions and convictions are rare because of the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. Typically, persons tried on charges of sedition are convicted only it can be proven that their words or actions created a “clear and present danger” of preventing the government from functioning. In many cases, defendants are convicted of lesser related charges, such as the illegal distribution of firearms or explosive devices.

A protester sits in the Senate Chamber on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.
A protester sits in the Senate Chamber on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In considering charges of seditious conspiracy, the courts strive to eliminate actual threats against the United States while protecting the defendants’ First Amendment rights. In many cases, the question of national security vs. individual freedom is far from simple.

In most cases, courts will convict people accused of sedition only when the government proves that the defendants had conspired to use force. Under the First Amendment, simply advocating for the use of force is not legally the same as actually using it, and in most cases is protected as free political speech. People giving speeches suggesting the need for an armed revolution may be viewed by the court as merely expressing an opinion rather than conspiring to overthrow the government. However, actions contributing to a revolution, such as distributing guns, recruiting a rebel army, or planning actual attacks, could be considered as a seditious conspiracy.

For example, in 1918, socialist activist Eugene V. Debs gave a speech in which he urged the public to physically prevent access to military recruiting stations during World War I. He was convicted of sedition under the Espionage Act of 1917 and appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds. In a unanimous opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Court upheld Debs’ conviction because “the natural and intended effect” and the “reasonably probable effect” of Deb’s speech was to interfere with the government’s lawful right to recruit troops during a time of war. 

Seditious Libel vs. Libel

Seditious libel was originally defined in 1789 by the Alien and Sedition Act, as the criminal act of making written public statements—whether true or not—intended to undermine respect for the government or its laws, or otherwise incite people to commit sedition.

While seditious libel is a criminal act against the government, personal libel is a civil wrong, or “tort,” committed against another individual. Tried in form of lawsuits filed in civil courts, rather than prosecutions in criminal courts, libel is a published false statement that damages a person’s reputation—a written form of defamatory slander.

In 1919, the Supreme Court, in the case of Schenck v. United States, upheld the seditious libel conviction of American Socialist Party leader Charles Schenck who had urged young men to resist the draft during World War I. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that a person’s First Amendment rights could be curtailed when “the words used are used … create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent.”

Though the Sedition Act was repealed in 1921, the Supreme Court considered seditious libel again in 1964 in the case of New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan. In this landmark decision, the Court ruled that the First Amendment requires that the plaintiff prove that the defendant knew that a statement was false or was reckless in deciding to publish the information without investigating whether it was accurate. The Court went on to declare that prosecutions for seditious libel violated the First Amendment. “We would, I think,” wrote Justice Hugo Black, “more faithfully interpret the First Amendment by holding that, at the very least, it leaves the people and the press free to criticize officials and discuss public affairs with impunity.”

Sedition vs. Treason 

Though both are serious crimes against the state, sedition differs from treason in one basic way. While seditious conspiracy is broadly defined as action or language intended to incite insurrection or rebellion, treason—as defined in Article III of the U.S. Constitution—is the more serious crime of actually waging war against the United States or giving “aid and comfort” to its enemies. In this manner, it can be said that seditious conspiracy often leads to acts of treason.

Compared to the maximum punishment of up to 20 years in prison for sedition, treason, as specified by 18 U.S. Code § 2381, is punishable by death or a minimum of 5 years in jail and a fine of not less than $10,000. Aimed at government officials who had fought for or supported the Confederacy in the Civil War, persons convicted of treason are also barred from ever holding any office of authority in the United States.

Sources and Further Reference

  • Donaghue, Erin. “Federal prosecutors investigate possible seditious conspiracy charges in Capitol assault.” CBS News, January 13, 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/us-capitol-riot-sedition-conspiracy-investigation/.
  • Sunstein, Cass R. “Was the Capitol Riot Sedition? Just Read the Law.” Bloomberg, January 21, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2021-01-21/what-is-sedition-the-capital-riot-legal-debate.
  • Parker, Richard. “Clear and Present Danger Test.” The First Amendment Encyclopedia, https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/898/clear-and-present-danger-test.
  • Lee, Douglas E. “Seditious Libel.” The First Amendment Encyclopedia, https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1017/seditious-libel.
  • “ACLU of New Mexico defends VA employee accused of 'Sedition' over criticism of Bush Administration.” ACLU, January 31, 2006, https://www.aclu.org/press-releases/aclu-new-mexico-defends-va-employee-accused-sedition-over-criticism-bush.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Sedition? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Mar. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/sedition-definition-and-examples-5115016. Longley, Robert. (2021, March 3). What Is Sedition? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sedition-definition-and-examples-5115016 Longley, Robert. "What Is Sedition? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sedition-definition-and-examples-5115016 (accessed May 10, 2021).