Freedom of speech is one of the most cherished rights that Americans have, and the fight for that right has drawn some of the greatest legal battles in our history. We like to believe that, after 200-plus years of defense of that right, that we can take it as a given.
However, this week marks the 93rd anniversary that pretty much eradicated that right, at least it did if you decided to criticize the government who, you know, just took away that right. On May 16 President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an amendment to the Espionage Act called the Sedition Act of 1918.
The act made "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces or that caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt" a crime punishable by up to two years in jail and $2,000 in fines. Adjusted for inflation that would be up to $28,000 in today's dollars.
Just for extra fun, the act also allowed the postmaster to open your mail if they thought you were indulging in a little sedition. It should be noted that this act was only applicable during war time. Granted, since 1776 the U.S. has spent a fifth of its lifetime at declared war, with the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan making up more than 20 percent of the total time spent in combat operations.
Luckily for all of us, the act lasted only until December 1920, when it was repealed. Good thing too, as there are a lot of musicians out there who would be sitting in the pokey right now if it hadn't. Now, Rocks Off is usually not a fan of overly political music. In our opinion it rarely enhances either politics or music, but no one should be punished for singing out against the ruling class.
If the act hadn't been repealed, some of today's artists who'd need lawyers would be...
Of course, if the Sedition Act of 1918 was still in effect there would be no punk rock. Simple as that. The mohawks are going to come for us on this one, but we've chosen Green Day as the example from the punk genre who would be shopping for legal representation right now but for the act's repeal.
Why? Because "Holiday" from American Idiot was a big hit, and the song very clearly states that those who criticize the government can expect only violence in return. The fear of oppression by the war machine has never been summed up better than the lyric, "Kill all the fags who don't agree."
Though it wouldn't be eradicated like punk would be, rap could count some of its biggest stars out for the count if criticizing American institutions was an imprisonable offense. Public Enemy, Immortal Technique, and Dead Prez would all be guests of federal penitentiaries, but we've chosen Eminem for the purposes of this list based on the lyric, "Fuck money, I don't rap for dead presidents/ I'd rather see the president dead" from the track "We As Americans."
The thing about that line is we're kind of surprised Eminem hasn't been visited by the authorities for it anyway. The Sedition Act may be history, but it is still illegal to say you want to kill the president, especially over the radio. Not only that, but the maximum prison time you can get for doing so is more than double that of the Sedition Act.
Granted, the threat has to at least sound somewhat serious, particularly if you're talking about arresting a major recording artist. Still, it might be a good idea to keep those presicide thoughts to yourself.
Though her music isn't overtly political, Stefani Germanotta decided last year that she would use her status as one of the top acts in the world to campaign against the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. At a Portland rally to drum up support for her cause she famously said...
Equality is the prime rib of America, but because I am gay, I don't get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat my country has to offer. Shouldn't everyone deserve to wear the same meat dress I do?
Alright, so it's not exactly Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," but there's no doubt that she shook some people up. No member of congress would admit that her efforts and speeches had any influence on their ultimate decision to end the discriminatory policy, but we all know the truth.
"Really, With One F?" you're probably saying out loud for some reason right now. Yes, really. If the Sedition Act was still in effect the top classical pianist currently residing in America might be incarcerated with Gaga, Green Day, and Eminem. Also, we just realized that that would be coolest version of The Breakfast Club ever.
Lang Lang, who is a Chinese citizen but lives and works in America, was the choice of entertainment when the White House hosted Chinese president Hu Jintao earlier this year. Among other tunes, he played the theme from the Korean War film Battle of Shangganling Mountain.
A bit of background, the song has become more or less just a popular melody in China, but at one time it was used for political attacks against America. The film portrays Americans as the bad guys in the Korean War with the Chinese as the heroes. The song is one of Lang Lang's favorites and he has played it since he was a child.
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The day after the performance the internet was rife with accusation that the song was meant as an insult to America by a pro-communist artist. Lang Lang denied any such intent, and the White House also said that such an interpretation of playing the song was ridiculous.
Even if he had meant the song in that manner, it is good to live in a place where we no longer feel the need to lock up those among us who would criticize our leaders. So to all of you out there with and ax to grind as well as to play, enjoy your freedom.