by Andrew P. Napolitano
May 09, 2013

It should come as no surprise that President Obama told Ohio State students at graduation ceremonies last week that they should not question authority and they should reject the calls of those who do. He argued that “our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule” has been so successful that trusting the government is the same as trusting ourselves; hence, challenging the government is the same as challenging ourselves. And he blasted those who incessantly warn of government tyranny.

Yet, mistrust of government is as old as America itself. America was born out of mistrust of government. The revolution that was fought in the 1770s and 1780s was actually won in the minds of colonists in the mid-1760s when the British imposed the Stamp Act and used writs of assistance to enforce it. The Stamp Act required all persons in the colonies to have government-sold stamps on all documents in their possession, and writs of assistance permitted search warrants written by British troops in which they authorized themselves to enter private homes ostensibly to look for the stamps.

These two pieces of legislation were so unpopular here that Parliament actually rescinded the Stamp Act, and the king’s ministers reduced the use of soldier-written search warrants. But the searches for the stamps turned the tide of colonial opinion irreversibly against the king.

The same king also prosecuted his political adversaries in Great Britain and here for what he called “seditious libel” — basically, criticizing the government. Often that criticism spread and led to civil disobedience, so the British sought to punish it at its source. The prosecutions were so unpopular here, and so contrary to the spirit of what would become the Declaration of Independence, that when the British went home and the Framers wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was added, the First Amendment assured that the new government could not punish speech.

Yet barely 10 years into “our brave, creative, unique experiment in self-rule,” in the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, Congress at the instigation of President John Adams criminalized free speech that was critical of the new government.

How did it come about that members of the same generation — in some cases the very same human beings — that declared in the First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech” in fact enacted laws that did just that?

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