Seditious conspiracy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Seditious conspiracy is a crime in various jurisdictions of conspiring against the authority or legitimacy of the state. As a form of sedition, it has been described as a serious but lesser counterpart to treason, targeting activities that undermine the state without directly attacking it.[1]

Common law[edit]

In common law jurisdictions, seditious conspiracy is an agreement by two or more persons to do any act with the intention to excite hatred or contempt against the persons or institutions of state, to excite the alteration by unlawful means of a state or church matter established by law, to raise discontent among the people, or to promote ill will and enmity between classes. Criticising a policy or state institution for the purpose of obtaining lawful reform is not seditious.[2] Seditious conspiracy, like other forms of sedition, developed during the late medieval period to apply to activities that threatened the social order but fell short of constructive treason. Enforcement of both types of offence under the Tudors and Stuarts grew increasingly harsh; courts judged the accused's intentions suspiciously, allowing juries to decide only whether the alleged events had occurred. A trend of jury nullifications in the 18th century ultimately limited the scope of seditious crimes.[3]

Charges of seditious conspiracy were notably brought in the United Kingdom against Irish radicals and Chartists in the 19th century[2][4] before being abolished in 2010.[5] The charge has been used against labour activists in both Canada and Australia, such as the leaders of the 1919 Winnipeg general strike and the Sydney Twelve. In British India, the charge was used to imprison independence activists, and the extension of their imprisonment by the 1919 Rowlatt Act led to Mahatma Gandhi's call for nonviolent resistance.

In Canada, the maximum sentence for seditious conspiracy is 14 years in jail.[6]

United States[edit]

In the United States, seditious conspiracy is codified at 18 U.S.C. § 2384:

If two or more persons in any State or Territory, or in any place subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States, or to levy war against them, or to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof, they shall each be fined or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.

This law was enacted in 1861 after secessionists gained control of most slaveholding states as the Confederate States of America, although it was originally sought by Senator Stephen A. Douglas in response to John Brown's 1859 raid on a federal arsenal. A substantially similar offense appeared in the Sedition Act of 1798 signed by President John Adams to suppress the Democratic-Republican Party's criticisms of the Quasi-War.[7] However, the law was deeply unpopular and was allowed to expire after Thomas Jefferson defeated Adams in the 1800 presidential election. After Nat Turner's slave rebellion, the Virginia General Assembly amended the state slave codes to enact charges similar to seditious conspiracy against slaves and free blacks who held unauthorized assemblies or led slave rebellions.[8][9]

Notable cases[edit]

Puerto Rican nationalists[edit]

Puerto Rican nationalists seeking the island's independence from the United States have been charged and convicted on multiple occasions. In 1936, Pedro Albizu Campos and other leaders of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party were prosecuted. Another seventeen members of the PRNP were charged after four of them carried out the 1954 Capitol shooting. In 1980, Puerto Rican Nationalist Carmen Valentín Pérez and nine others were charged, and were each given sentences of up to 90 years in prison.[10]

Far-right groups[edit]

Seditious conspiracy charges have been brought several times, for the most part unsuccessfully, against far-right groups, including white nationalists and followers of the Patriot movement, whose adherents espouse a belief that the federal government is illegitimate.

In 1940 the government arrested seventeen members of the Christian Front, followers of fascistic broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin. All of the charges ended in dismissal or acquittal.[11] In the Fort Smith sedition trial, Louis Beam and nine other white supremacists were indicted for the activities of The Order and The Covenant, The Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. All ten defendants and four other defendants indicted for different crimes were acquitted in April 1988 after a two-month trial. In 2010, nine members of Hutaree were charged.[12] They were acquitted due to the prosecution's overreliance on circumstantial evidence.[13]

In 2010 the United States Department of Justice attempted to prosecute the Christian nationalist Hutaree militia of Lenawee County, Michigan, for seditious conspiracy. Judge Victoria A. Roberts of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ordered the seditious conspiracy charges to be dismissed under First Amendment grounds.[14][15]

January 6 attacks[edit]

Several members of American far-right militias were charged with seditious conspiracy for their participation in the January 6 United States Capitol attack, in which a mob of the outgoing President Donald Trump's supporters attacked the United States Capitol in an attempt to prevent the 2021 United States Electoral College vote count formally certifying his successor Joe Biden's victory in the 2020 United States presidential election. Eleven members of the Oath Keepers, including leader Stewart Rhodes, were charged with seditious conspiracy in January 2022 for allegedly conspiring to stop the presidential transition of Joe Biden.[16][17][18] By the following May, three Oath Keeper members had pled guilty to the charges.[19] That November, Rhodes and the Florida Oath Keeper Kelly Meggs were convicted by a jury of the charge.[20] Three other Oath Keeper leaders were acquitted, but found guilty of other felonies. [21] In January 2023, four more Oath Keepers were convicted of seditious conspiracy and other charges, bringing the total number of Oath Keepers guilty of the charge to 9. They had been charged alongside Rhodes and others, but tried separately due to the number of defendants. [22]

In June 2022, five Proud Boys leaders, including their former chairman Enrique Tarrio, were similarly charged.[23] In October, a sixth Proud Boy leader pled guilty to seditious conspiracy, as well as a weapons charge, as part of a cooperation agreement.[24]

After the public hearings of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack, some legal analysts and political commentators argued that enough evidence existed for an indictment of Trump himself for seditious conspiracy either in connection with the attack or his attempts to overturn the 2020 United States presidential election in general.[25][26][27] President Biden and certain special interest groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers had already previously accused Trump of sedition for his speech at the rally before the attack.[8] Members of the House January 6 Committee were alarmed at Cassidy Hutchinson's testimony that Trump demanded to be driven to the Capitol and lunged for the wheel of the presidential SUV as direct evidence.[28] United States Department of Justice prosecutors involved in the seditious conspiracy cases against the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers attempted to block the defendants from blaming Trump in their defenses on the basis that he had no political authority to order such a conspiracy.[29]

Islamist terrorism[edit]

In 1995 Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a prominent Muslim cleric, and nine others were convicted of seditious conspiracy for planning to bomb New York City landmarks after the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.[30]

In 1996, after his Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places stating al-Qaeda's intention to carry out terrorist attacks on the United States, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York allowed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin investigating Osama bin Laden under the charge of seditious conspiracy.[31]


The government charged three members of the Buffalo, New York-based El Ariete Society, a Communist group, in 1920. The defendants were acquitted by a judge as the government failed to prove that the defendants had any connection with the seditious publications that were presented as evidence, or that any active conspiracy had existed.[32]

Three members of the United Freedom Front, a Marxist group, were convicted in 1989 for a series of attacks against corporate, government, and military targets.[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chapin, Bradley (2010). Criminal Justice in Colonial America, 1606-1660.
  2. ^ a b Stephen, James Fitzjames (1883). A Digest of the Criminal Law.
  3. ^ Cressy, David (2010). Dangerous Talk.
  4. ^ Belchem, John (2000). Merseypride: Essays in Liverpool Exceptionalism. p. 142.
  5. ^ "Coroners and Justice Act 2009: Section 73",, The National Archives, 2009 c. 25 (s. 73), retrieved 19 September 2015
  6. ^ Izadi, Melody (2021-01-06). "What You Didn't Know was a Crime in Canada". LawNow.
  7. ^ Tarrant, Catharine M. "To 'insure domestic Tranquility': Congress and the Law of Seditious Conspiracy, 1859-1861". The American Journal of Legal History. 17 (2): 107.
  8. ^ a b Schuessler, Jennifer (2021-08-01). "'Sedition': A complicated history". Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  9. ^ "Laws Passed, March 15, 1832". nat-turner. Retrieved 2022-09-06.
  10. ^ ProLIBERTAD: ProLIBERTAD Campaign for the Freedom of Puerto Rican Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War: Arm the Spirit 30 October 1995. May 29, 2013.
  11. ^ Gallagher, Charles (2021). Nazis of Copley Square: Forgotten stories of the Christian Front.
  12. ^ "Nine Members of a Militia Group Charged with Seditious Conspiracy and Related Offenses", press release, United States Department of Justice, March 29, 2010.
  13. ^ Guarino, Mark (March 27, 2012). "Hutaree militia acquitted of plot to foment revolution". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 2021-01-19.
  14. ^ Tangalakis-Lippert, Katherine. "What is the potential penalty if someone is convicted of 'seditious conspiracy'". Business Insider. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  15. ^ Schulz, Jacob (2021-02-24). "The Last Time the Justice Department Prosecuted a Seditious Conspiracy Case". Lawfare. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  16. ^ "Leader of Oath Keepers and 10 Other Individuals Indicted in Federal Court for Seditious Conspiracy and Other Offenses Related to U.S. Capitol Breach". 2022-01-13. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  17. ^ Malin, Alexander; Barr, Luke (2022-01-13). "DOJ indicts Oath Keepers leader, members on seditious conspiracy charges involving Jan. 6 attack". ABC News. Retrieved 2022-01-13.
  18. ^ Lucas, Ryan (2022-01-02). "Oath Keepers face seditious conspiracy charges. DOJ has mixed record with such cases". Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  19. ^ Ryan J. Reilly (May 4, 2022). "Third Oath Keepers defendant pleads guilty to sedition in Capitol riot case". NBC News.
  20. ^ "Two Leaders of Oath Keepers Found Guilty of Seditious Conspiracy and Other Charges Related to U.S. Capitol Breach". 2022-11-29. Retrieved 2022-12-06.
  21. ^ Kyle Cheney (November 29, 2022). "Jury convicts Oath Keeper leaders of seditious conspiracy". Politico.
  22. ^ Daniel Barnes, Liz Brown-Kaiser, Dareh Gregorian and Julia Jester (January 23, 2023). "Four Oath Keepers convicted of seditious conspiracy in Jan 6 attack". NBC News.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  23. ^ Proud Boys leader Tarrio, 4 top lieutenants charged with seditious conspiracy in widening Jan 6 case, Washington Post, Spencer Hsu, June 6, 2022. Retrieved June 6, 2022.
  24. ^ Cheney, Kyle. "Proud Boys leader pleads guilty to seditious conspiracy over Jan. 6 actions". POLITICO. Retrieved 2022-10-06.
  25. ^ "What is 'seditious conspiracy'? Could Trump face criminal charges for role in Jan. 6 insurrection?". News. 2022-06-14. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  26. ^ "Perspective | If Trump is charged, it should be for the worst of his crimes". Washington Post. 2022-08-12. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  27. ^ Stening, Tanner (2022-07-06). "How would Donald Trump fare in a jury trial? Why an indictment against the former president is more than likely". News @ Northeastern. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  28. ^ Draper, Robert (2022-07-10). "Cassidy Hutchinson: Why the Jan. 6 Committee Rushed Her Testimony". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  29. ^ Polantz, Katelyn (2022-07-30). "Justice Department doesn't want Oath Keepers to blame Trump at trial". CNN. Retrieved 2022-09-05.
  30. ^ Perez-Pena, Richard (2 October 1995). "The Terror Conspiracy—The Charges—A Gamble Pays Off as the Prosecution Uses an Obscure 19th-Century Law (Published 1995)". The New York Times.
  31. ^ Wright, Lawrence (2006). The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (1 ed.). New York: Vintage Books. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-375-41486-2. OCLC 64592193.
  32. ^ Chafee, Zechariah, Jr. (1996). Freedom of Speech.
  33. ^ "After 9 Months of Delays, U.S. Tries 3 for Sedition". The New York Times. AP. 1989-01-12. Retrieved 2009-10-28.

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