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UWM students aim to squash free-speech rights

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Joel McNally
February 18, 2008

When we hear sedition is raging out of control at UW-Milwaukee prompting student government to ban free speech on campus, citizens everywhere have a right to be alarmed.


What’s alarming, of course, is the apparent overwhelming ignorance of many of today’s student leaders at our local university about the principles of democracy and the U.S. Constitution.


It’s true, as someone apparently found out in a freshman history class, Congress passed a Sedition Act in 1798, making it a crime “to write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious writing against the government of the United States, or either House of Congress, or the President…”


But UWM student leaders who passed a new “Student Association Sedition Act” must have cut the next class where they would have learned the original Sedition Act provoked such outrage as an offense against democracy that the Federalists, who championed it, were turned out of office two years later and the ridiculous law was removed from the books.


Thomas Jefferson, elected president in 1800, pardoned all those convicted under the Sedition Act, and Congress restored all fines paid with interest.


Congress has passed a lot of bad laws during various periods of political repression in our history.


Fortunately, the UWM Student Association hasn’t gotten to 1942 in its history books where President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order authorizing the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.


We would hate for the UWM Student Association to start putting students they don’t like into concentration camps.


So just what kind of sedition, or incitement to rebellion, has broken out at UWM, prompting the university’s student government to suspend free speech? Are Panther cheerleaders stockpiling arms and threatening to overthrow the university by force?


Worse. The campus newspaper has criticized the Student Association. And if the UWM Post doesn’t stop saying hurtful things about student politicians, the Student Association has no choice but to end free speech on campus.


Under the Student Association Sedition Act, the student government would have the power to issue cease-and-desist orders to anyone making “libelous and slanderous communications regarding the Student Association,” you know, saying bad stuff about them.


Fortunately, at least one student leader, Student Association President Rob Grover, knew enough about the First Amendment and the protection of free speech in America to veto the student sedition act.


It would be easy to use passage of such a ludicrous measure by a body elected to represent college students as an example of the dumbing down of higher education at our state universities.


But there is plenty of blame to go around since 9/11 for our failure to teach young people, and a whole lot of older people, about the importance of protecting our constitutional rights within a democracy.


When I was growing up in Indiana, we were shown scary, black-and-white propaganda films about what would happen if the godless Communists ever took over America. We saw people hauled off to jail, where they were held without trial, without even being charged with anything. They had no access to attorneys. Since there were no charges, there was never any opportunity for them to argue their innocence.


Oh, yeah. They would be tortured, too.


Those frightening films made such an impression on me as a young Hoosier I was absolutely amazed when our own government starting implementing the same horrific practices at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and secret U.S. gulags somewhere in Eastern Europe.


When the Congress learned the Bush administration had been illegally wiretapping Americans without court authorization, it never seriously debated bringing charges against the president for breaking the law. Instead, the Senate and the House are now arguing over how to make the president’s crimes retroactively legal and how to protect telephone companies from being sued as accomplices in the illegal wiretaps.


If our real elected representatives don’t understand the principles of democracy, how can we expect pretend college politicians to know any better?


Joel McNally is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is jmcnally@wi.rr.com.

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