Of hacks, the mainstream media has no shortage. Few journalists or pundits are as irresponsible or as partisan as Time's Joe Klein (although Paul Krugman would give Klein some serious competition). Klein over the weekend told Chris Matthews he believes Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are dabbling in the dark, unpatriotic arts of sedition.
"I did a little bit of research just before this show -- it's on this little napkin here," Klein said. "I looked up the definition of sedition, which is conduct of language inciting rebellion against the authority of the state. And a lot of these statements, especially the ones coming from people like Glenn Beck and to a certain extent Sarah Palin, rub right up close to being seditious."
Not to be outdone, New York Magazine's John Heilemann, appearing on the show with Klein, added Rush Limbaugh to the sedition list.
"Joe's right and I'll name another person, I'll name Rush Limbaugh who uses this phrase constantly and talks about the Obama administration as a regime," Heilemann said. "That phrase which has connotations of tyranny. And what's so interesting about it to me...what is the focus, what is the cause of this? You think back to 1994, there was Ruby Ridge. There was Waco. There were triggering incidents. There's been nothing like that. The only thing that's changed in the last 15 months is the election of Barack Obama. And as far as I can see, in terms of the policies that Obama has implemented, there's nothing."
But Klein has been singing this tuneless sedition song now for months. I first noted it in October. Back then, Klein wrote a column for Time.com criticizing the White House for attacking Fox News Channel that began: "Let me be precise here: Fox News peddles a fair amount of hateful crap. Some of it borders on sedition. Much of it is flat out untrue." He hauled out the trope again in December.
Did it really take Klein six months to look up the dictionary definition of sedition? I doubt it. But I do not doubt for a moment that Klein is peddling some flat-out untruths of his own.
First, although Klein says he's worried about what Beck, Palin, et. al, say, the fact is that United States doesn't have a seditious libel law anymore... thank God. The federal sedition statute covers seditious acts--as the prosecution of the Michigan "Hutaree" reminds us.
As I noted back in October, Klein is much too careless with his casual if qualified use of the term "sedition" -- even if he now has the lofty authority of his desktop dictionary to fall back upon. In reality, of course, sedition is a notoriously subjective "crime" that has been wildly abused for partisan advantage in the United States. It could be that Klein doesn't know what he's talking about, or it could be that he genuinely wants to see the likes of Beck, Hannity, O'Reilly, and Limbaugh hauled away in leg irons. Or it could be some combination of the two. Either way, keep your reactionary "dissent" to yourself.
Klein's dumb commentary was why we had University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone on the podcast in December. Stone is a liberal, but his work on the history of the First Amendment during wartime is simply indispensable. The first question I asked Stone had to do with Klein and other lesser lights. What did he think about these left-leaning pundits cavalierly throwing around charges of sedition at their ideological opponents?
"I'd prefer that they didn't," Stone said. "At present, there is really no meaningful legal concept of sedition or seditious libel." He went on to discuss how there are no seditious libel laws currently on the books, and we had a fascinating conversation about how those laws evolved over the centuries.
I don't think Joe Klein, John Heilemann, or Chris Matthews have read Stone's book, or much else useful. Shame on the preening, censorious, ignorant lot of them. They're a disgrace to their trade and embarrassment to their profession.
Update: Klein digs in:
Let me be clear: dissent isn't sedition. Questioning an Administration's policies isn't sedition. But questioning an Administration's legitimacy in a manner intended to undermine or overthrow it certainly is. A rally like this yesterday in South Carolina is a good example of seditious speech. It's not illegal--unless actions are taken to overthrow the government in question--but it is disgraceful and the precise opposite of patriotism in a democracy.
At least somebody seems to have clued him in to the law. But he's still wrong. Reason's Matt Welch gives Klein a nice thrashing at Hit and Run:
I am confident Klein's intellect is sufficiently razor-sharp to determine whether someone has crossed the legal threshold of sedition or not. And I would think that if you're a journalist playing the S-card–that is, if you're a free speech practitioner invoking one of the most notorious anti-free speech categories of law–you should at least have the basic stones to state definitively which of the people you disagree with should be locked up.
(Cross-posted at The Freedom Pub.)