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Freedom to Regret
Scholar criticizes wartime threats to Bill of Rights
Freedom of speech has been cited to protect myriad social actions throughout U.S. history,
from the right ro read what you have in your
hands and the right to burn a flag in demon-
stration to the right to give a candidate a
campaign donation. But if there's one conunon
instance when freedom of speech fails, it's
wartime. In an era ofcom.bat, sometimes your
very right to be who you are is threatened.
Throughout its history, the United States has
forgone tolerance and failed to protect civil
liberties while at war or when national securi-
ty is threatened - that's the essence of Daniel
Pollitt's view, which he shared during a
Carolina College for Lifelong Learning pro-
gram in February.
"In times of war, tolerance is a thing of the
past," said Pollitt, Kenan Professor of Law
Emeritus. "We have a crisis, and we forget
about the Bill of Rigbts."
Pollitt led the audience through a historical
tour of occasions when civil liberties and free
speech came in conflict with national security,
beginning with the Alien and Sedition Act of
The act, which was passed while the French
and English were at war, raised residency
requirements for citizenship and allowed
President John Adams to arrest, detain or
deport citizens of hostile nations at his discre-
tion if the United States were at war.
"The act n'lade it illegal to circulate an
opinion that induced the belief that laws were
hostile to the Constitution," Pollitt said. "You
couldn't say anything favoring the French.
Any writing that defamed the president or an
office-holder was illegal."
The harslmess of the sedition laws backfired
on Adams and his Federalist supporters. Thomas
Jefferson defeated Adams in the presidential
election of 1800, pardoning everyone convict-
ed under the act. "Ever since that time, we've
been in agreement that the alien and sedition
laws were a blot upon our history;' Pollitt said.
But threats to civil liberties continued.
Thirty years after the sedition laws expired,
the United States was again in crisis - tills
time due to slavery. Abolitionists and support-
ers of slavery were in conflict."There was a
fear of slave rebellions," Pollitt said. "North
Carolina passed a law making it illegal to cir-
culate literature that had the tendency to cre-
ate unrest among the domestics."
After abolitionist printer Elijah Lovejoy's
printing presses repeatedly were destroyed in
1837, the conflict between abolitionists and
pro-slavery citizens changed. "Now tills was a
free-speech fight as well as a free-person
fight," Pollitt said.
South Carolina's secession from the Union
and the firing on Fort Sumter, S.c., both fol-
lowed shortly thereafter and led to another
civil-liberties crisis - the Civil War.
In violation of the Constitution, President
Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, a
common-law safeguard against unlawful impris-
onment. He declared martial law when Union
troops could not get to Washington, D.C., be-
cause protesters were destroying railroad bridges.
"What can you do?" Pollitt asked. "He had
a choice to protect the Constitution or the
country. But once you start down that road
ignoring the law, you don't know where you're
going to get. When you start abusing authority,
there's hardly any stopping place."
Both World Wars I and II led to linlitations
on civil liberties as well. The Espionage Act of
World War I made it illegal to intelfere with
the war effort, which led to more than 2,000
Fear of the Japanese after the attack on Pearl
Harbor led to the removal and internment of
Japanese from the U.S. West Coast to the inte-
rior during World War II."We regretted it
afterwards," Pollitt said. "It was a nllstake."
After World War II, the Cold War created a
fear of communism and led to inquiries into
communist activities of U.S. citizens.
Suspected professors were fired from almost
every college, according to Pollitt.
Regarding the post-Sept. 11 climate, Pollitt
criticized President Bush's executive order of
nlllitary tribunals for non-citizens suspected
of being dangerous to the United States.
"Bush ignores the law and ignores our prece-
dent. He ignores our past,"Pollitt said."Acts
that are crisis-driven that we take to protect
ourselves are hailed, but as time goes by, we
realize we shouldn't have done that." •
- Eliz abeth Spainhour