Sedition Law & the Freedom of Expression – The Regime in India, the UK, and the USA
June 13, 2023
The Freedom of Speech and Expression is a recognized fundamental human right, especially in all democratic countries, all around the globe. The right to freedom of expression allows individuals to express their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation or censorship. However, the exercise of this right is not absolute, and there are limitations that are imposed in the interest of public order, national security, and the rights of others. One such limitation to this right is Sedition Law.
Sedition is the act of inciting rebellion or violence against the government or the state. It is a crime that is aimed at protecting the stability and integrity of the state. However, sedition laws have been criticized for being overly broad and vague, and for being used to suppress dissent and criticism.
This article aims to critically examine the concept of freedom of expression and sedition law in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. It will explore the historical and legal background of sedition laws in these countries, and the criticisms that have been leveled against them. The article will also compare the sedition laws in these countries and analyze their implications for freedom of expression and democracy.
Freedom of Expression
Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.
This quote can succinctly put forth the need for freedom of speech and expression which a person holds as his/her fundamental right. This concept is widely recognized by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It includes all the rights like the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing, in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of choice.
This concept is essential for any healthy democracy to work effectively in the long run. We can see this concept being talked about in The French Revolution in 1789 where they adopted the Declaration of Rights of Man and of Citizen.
Sedition is the act of inciting rebellion or violence against the government or the state. Sedition laws are aimed at protecting the stability and integrity of the state, and at preventing acts that may lead to the overthrow of the government or the disruption of public order. However, sedition laws have been criticized for being overly broad and vague, and for being used to suppress dissent and criticism.
The history of sedition law can be traced back to ancient Rome, where it was used to prosecute those who criticized the government or the ruling class. Sedition laws were also used during the colonial period to suppress anti-colonial movements and nationalist movements in India and other colonies.
Sedition Law in India
Sedition law in India is governed by Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. This provision criminalizes the act of bringing or attempting to bring into hatred or contempt, or exciting or attempting to excite disaffection towards the government established by law in India. The provision has been criticized for being overly broad and vague, and for being used to suppress dissent and criticism.
The sedition law in India has a long and controversial history. It was first introduced by the British colonial government in 1870 to suppress nationalist movements and freedom fighters. The law was used to prosecute many nationalist leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak. After India gained independence in 1947, the law was retained in the Indian Penal Code however Jawahar Lal Nehru raised objection and favored to get rid of this law. In recent years, we can see a growing misuse of the sedition law has been used to prosecute individuals who criticize the government or the ruling party. Hitherto the Supreme Court of India has temporarily suspended the law and is on re-examination.
Sedition Law in the United Kingdom
Historically, sedition law in Britain has focused on protecting the Crown and government from any criticism perceived to be unlawful or disruptive. The Offences Against The Person Act 1861 makes it an offense to incite others to “disaffect His Majesty’s subjects” by attempting “to baffle all laws and to subvert public liberty”. Any person found guilty is liable for life imprisonment if convicted on indictment or 12 months imprisonment if convicted summarily. However, it is important to note that this crime does not extend to undermining current governments but rather hereditary monarchies and those who use power maliciously against their own people. undermining current governments but rather hereditary monarchies and those who use power maliciously against their own people.
The crime was punishable by death until it was repealed in 1867. In modern times, the UK has replaced sedition with other offenses such as terrorism, incitement to racial hatred, and public order offenses. However, the offense of seditious libel still exists in the country’s common law, and it has been used to restrict freedom of expression in some cases.
Seditious libel is defined as the publication of words that are likely to incite disaffection against the Crown or the government. In a case from 1981, the publisher of a left-wing newspaper was convicted of seditious libel for publishing an article that allegedly incited readers to overthrow the government. Critics argue that the offense of seditious libel is vague and has a chilling effect on free speech, as it can be used to suppress political dissent. However, the UK government argues that the offense is necessary to protect national security and public order.
Sedition Law in the United States of America
The constitutional history of sedition law in the United States began with John Adams’ Alien and Sedition Acts adopted by Congress in 1883. This act curtailed a variety of rights including free speech, press freedom, peaceful assembly, and due process protections, and established harsh penalties including deportation or imprisonment for individuals found guilty of engaging in “seditious” activity.
The law was repealed in 1801, but sedition remained a crime in some states. In 1917, the US passed a new federal sedition law as part of the Espionage Act. The law made it a crime to “willfully utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States or the Constitution of the United States.” The law was again used to prosecute political dissidents, including the socialist Eugene V. Debs.
The law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1925, which held that it violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. Since then, sedition has been rarely used in the US, and the Supreme Court has continued to protect the right to free speech.
A Comparison of Sedition Law
Despite the differences in the sedition laws of India, the UK, and the US, there are some key similarities. In all three countries, sedition laws have been used to restrict freedom of expression and to suppress political dissent.
There are also some important differences. The sedition law in India is much broader than in the UK and the US, and it criminalizes any speech or expression that is considered to be seditious. In contrast, the UK and the US have more narrowly defined sedition laws that focus on speech that incites violence or insurrection.
Another key difference is that the sedition law in India is frequently used to suppress criticism of the government, while the sedition laws in the UK and the US have been used more sparingly. The UK and the US have stronger legal protections for free speech, and their courts have been more willing to strike down sedition laws that violate those protections.
Overall, it is important to strike a balance between protecting the state and protecting freedom of expression. This requires clear and narrowly defined laws that are not open to abuse by those in power. In the case of sedition law, there is a need for reform and a reassessment of its purpose in modern democratic societies.
Legal scholars and policymakers should work towards a legal framework that protects the right to free speech while also ensuring that the state is not threatened by violence or overthrow. This may involve a re-evaluation of the use of sedition law and the development of clearer, more narrowly defined offenses that address legitimate concerns while minimizing the potential for abuse.
In conclusion, freedom of expression is a cornerstone of democracy and must be protected. The existence of sedition laws can be a threat to this right, and it is necessary to ensure that the laws are clear and narrowly defined to prevent abuse. The critical socio-legal study into the freedom of expression and sedition law in India, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America has highlighted the need for reform and a renewed commitment to protecting the rights of citizens in democratic societies.