Udall Amendment: The Eerie Shadow of the 1798 Sedition Act

By:  Thomas R. Eddlem
Udall Amendment: The Eerie Shadow of the 1798 Sedition Act

A proposed constitutional amendment by Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) to give Congress the unlimited power to criminalize political speech has political roots that date back to the 1798 Sedition Act, as senators promoting the amendment are using virtually identical rhetoric as congressmen who advocated passage of the Sedition Act.

The Udall amendment has been introduced in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United v. FEC Supreme Court decision, which increased anti-incumbent advertising by eliminating spending limits on independent political opinions by associations of citizens.

"Our government should be of, by and for the people — not bought and paid for by secret donors and special interests,” Senator Udall explained of his amendment April 30, adding, “I'm looking forward to working with Senator Schumer to bring common-sense campaign finance reform to a vote as soon as possible so we can ensure our elections are about the quality of ideas and not the quantity of cash."

Udall's amendment would “authorize Congress to regulate the raising and spending of money for federal political campaigns, including independent expenditures,” according to his U.S. Senate website. Translated from Washington-doubletalk, it means it would give Congress the legal power to censor any criticism of political incumbents — in effect, repealing the First Amendment.

In order to sell the amendment, Udall retailed a litany of empty, fact-devoid slogans: “Elections have become more about the quantity of cash and less about the quality of ideas. More about special interests, and less about public service. We have a broken system based on a deeply flawed premise." Indeed, proponents of the Udall amendment have employed virtually identical language to attack the First Amendment to that used during the Republic's first attack on the freedoms of speech and press: the 1798 Sedition Act. Udall and his fellow Democratic Senators have argued that the First Amendment is not absolute, that the mass of propaganda against political officials is unprecedented and unsustainable, that an unleashed free press threatens our very system of government, and that anonymous political speech is dangerous to the political system. Each of these arguments were advanced by Federalist congressmen as reasons for passage of the 1798 Sedition Act:

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Photo of Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.): AP Images

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