A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

"The Truth" About Sedition

Yesterday, I picked up a handful of copies of Marvel's mini-series The Truth, about the black soldiers who were part of the early Super-Soldier experiments. I recall there being some level of controversy over the realism of the men's treatment, but when reading #1, it was the second-to-last page that caught my eye.

Maurice Canfield is an affluent black socialist activist from Philadelphia. Earlier in the issue he was involved in unionizing dockworkers in Newark, but at issue's end he is in a Philly courtroom. The judge tells him:

"Demonstrating against the war effort is tantamount to sedition, for which the Court can sentence you to twenty years hard labor....You can do the time [ ] or you can enlist and serve your nation with honor. It's up to you."

Maurice, of course, chooses to enlist. It's interesting that the caption dates the trial as "January 1942," just a month after Pearl Harbor. He certainly wasted no time in protesting, and the government sure wasted no time in prosecuting him. But apparently, in their rush to trial, the feds failed to realize that Mr. Canfield hadn't broken any law.

The United States has a bit of a history with laws criminalizing criticism of the government. The U.S. wasn't even a decade old when the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were passed. They proved to be a political disaster, and by 1802 the law was gone. World War I brought with it the Sedition Act of 1918, which put a penalty of twenty years' imprisonment on the obstruction of the governemtn during wartime. Perhaps the most well-known target of that law was socialist leader Eugene Debs, who gave a speech praising socialism and condemning the Great War. Maurice's situation sounds similar to Debs', which may have been what the author was thinking of.

But the Sedition Act of 1918 was repealed in 1921, over twenty years before Maurice Canfield stood in a Philadelphia courtroom. This doesn't speak well for Maurice's attorney, frankly. It's usually a pretty good defense to show that the crime your client is charged with was eliminated when he was in pre-school. The fact that they don't appeal the judgment is equally foolish.

It's arguable that Maurice was charged under the Smith Act, since that law was used to target socialist activists. But it's not a terribly good fit, in my opinion. For starters, there was only one use of the Act prior to 1944. That incident was unrelated to WWII, and apparently didn't result in any sentences longer than 16 months. But more importantly, the judge here states that Maurice's crime was protesting the war, and that doesn't really sound much like the Smith Act (which dealt with endorsing the overthrow of the government).