Laura Berg had never worried about speaking her mind. The 52-year-old psychiatric nurse at Albuquerque's Veterans Affairs Medical Center was no fan of the Bush administration, and neither were most of her colleagues at the V.A.
"We'd sometimes talk politics over lunch," Berg says. "We have a pretty liberal-leaning section. I can't say it's been a repressive environment."
Last September, Berg was off work and reading coverage of Hurricane Katrina that inflamed her feelings about the White House. Feeling irate and "full of passion," she pounded out a letter to her U.S. senators and several Albuquerque newspapers, scorching the administration for bungling the recovery.
"Bush, Cheney, Chertoff, Brown, and Rice should be tried for criminal negligence," she wrote. "We need to wake up and get real here, and act forcefully to remove a government administration playing games of smoke and mirrors and vicious deceit."
Alibi, a local alternative newspaper, printed the letter. When Berg came into work the next day, she was greeted by co-workers who loved what she wrote but had heard that "some people were upset." They told Berg to contact the American Federation of Government Employees Union. When she did, she was informed that Human Resources Director Mel Hooker had reported her insubordinate letter "up the ladder" to the FBI. Soon thereafter, Berg's work computer was seized and searched on the suspicion she'd used it to write the letter.
After her hard drive was copied and searched, Berg sent a memo to the higher-ups, asking exactly what was going on. In mid-November she got a response from Hooker, acquitting her of misusing the computer while ominously warning of more scrutiny to come. "You have insulted the very government that employs you," Hooker's letter read, "and the agency has a responsibility to investigate you for possible sedition."
That message shifted the momentum in Berg's favor. New Mexico's branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) offered to help her case, and its information requests and P.R. efforts threatened to embarrass the V.A. In February, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) wrote a letter of concern to Veterans Affairs Secretary R. James Nicholson. A month later, Nicholson responded and made it clear that Berg's letter to the editor "did not amount to sedition."
Today Berg is off the hook, and the V.A. is waving off the whole affair. ("We have apologized," says department spokesman Bill Armstrong. "Our director has apologized to Laura Berg personally. And now we are moving on.") But that "sedition" charge, raised by a government employer against an employee, remains strange and ominous.
The key problem is that sedition doesn't really mean anything in the United States. Technically, of course, it covers conduct or language "inciting rebellion against the authority of a state." But American courts have only rarely taken sedition charges seriously. Twice Congress tried to write sedition into the law, and both efforts ended in farce.
The 1798 Sedition Act was a product of the scorching politics of John Adams' sole White House term. Adams' Federalist Party was being pilloried day in and day out in partisan newspapers. The Jeffersonian opposition called it free speech; the Federalists feared the bodice-ripping radicalism that had taken over the French Revolution. So in a package of bills designed to defuse the phantom menace of France, Adams' party passed an act banning "false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States." The new law helped prosecute several journalists and political activists, before expiring, conveniently, when President Thomas Jefferson took office in 1801.
The 1918 Sedition Act, passed during World War I, had greater consequences and a longer list of victims. Attorney General Thomas Gregory argued for "protection of the nation against the insidious propaganda of the pacifist" as a way to prevent "hysteria."
The law led to thousands of arrests and the hysteria only heightened after the war ended, when prosecutors used it to imprison real and alleged radical sympathizers. A lame duck Congress repealed this Sedition Act in November 1920, and over the next few years a Republican White House sheepishly commuted the sentences of the prisoners.
Actual sedition trials have been scarce since then. The New Mexico ACLU's executive director, Peter Simonson, who worked on Berg's case, says, "In my lifetime, I've never heard of anyone being accused of sedition or being tried for it." It's probable that Berg's superiors brought out the creaky accusation because of the wording of her letter —specifically, her call for readers to "act forcefully to remove [the] government administration." But it was a serious overreading of a letter that was, after all, sent to two U.S. senators.
"How else are you going to act if you get involved in making any kind of change?" Berg asks. "Act wimpily? Act lazily?"
The Berg letter became a sticking point not because it was sedition, but because this is the sort of political climate that in the past has produced sedition laws. The Bush administration is committed to a foreign war that most of the populace would like to wish into the cornfield. A sizable number of the pro-war pundits believe that weakness and dissent at home embolden the enemy abroad.
This attitude is a mainstay of every war, but it's more pronounced when there's substantial public doubt about the war effort, as with the World War I–era belief that Greenwich Village reds were hurting our doughboys by handing out peacemongering fliers.
While an actual Sedition Act 3.0 isn't making its way through Congress, a "no tolerance" view of criticism is expressed widely and frequently by many backers of Bush and the war. In April, when a series of retired generals hit the cable TV circuit to pillory Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Washington Times Editorial Page Editor Tony Blankley speculated about whether the generals had conspired to retire around the same time in order to bring down the Pentagon's head man. If so, Blankley wrote, they were engaging in "mutinous sedition." Shortly afterward, the popular anti-Muslim blogger Charles Johnson wrote—in complete seriousness—that "in a very real way, mainstream media's culture of 'If It Bleeds It Leads' is becoming a major liability in the clash of civilizations."
An even better example of this started two weeks ago at U.C.-Santa Cruz, where a group called Students Against War protested and successfully expelled military recruiters from a job fair. The anti-war students had done this before and won themselves a place in a Pentagon surveillance file. That hardly slowed them down—they remained confident enough, after their latest stunt, to fire off a media advisory and make themselves available for interviews. Columnist and blogger Michelle Malkin read their press release and posted the students' phone numbers and e-mail addresses on her own site, directing hordes of death threat–tossing readers their way.
Malkin's UCSC post was titled "Seditious Santa Cruz vs. America." Even after the UCSC students cried uncle and pulled their phone numbers offline, Malkin continued to post their information alongside the office numbers for the "capitulationist chancellor" who had refused to purge them.
All these charges of sedition—and treason, if you've followed the controversy over CIA leaks—represent a view of free speech during wartime that has less to do with our Constitution and more to do with Singapore's. But at the moment, it's just a view. And Laura Berg still has a job, along with a little notoriety that could protect her if she decided to speak out again.
"Would I do it again?" says Berg. "Yes, I would. I'm hoping to write a little bit more."