Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes convicted: What is sedition? Meaning and examples
Two members of the far-right militia group have been found guilty of seditious conspiracy for their role in the January 6 attack on Congress.
Two members of the far-right militia group the Oath Keepers were convicted of seditious conspiracy on Tuesday. Stewart Rhodes, leader of the group, and accomplice Kelly Meggs, were both found guilty.
The charges relate to the January 6 attack on the Capitol, which was ruled as an attempt to subvert the result of the 2020 presidential election. Rhodes did not enter the Capitol building personally but was involved in the organisation of the attack and played the role of “battlefield general” according to prosecutor Jeffrey Nestler.
Jurors returned their verdict after three days of deliberation and three other defendants were acquitted on the central charge of sedition. In addition to the charge of sedition, Rhodes was also found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding and document tampering.
What is sedition?
The charge of sedition has a long tradition in Anglo-American common law but can be very difficult to define. Broadly it covers any spoken or written actions that are designed to incite an insurrection against the government.
In the United States the crime was signed into law by President John Adams, who passed the Sedition Act of 1798. That set out punishments worth up to two years in prison, for crimes including producing or publishing “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” related to the President or to Congress.
In 1917 the Espionage Act broadened the scope to include actions spreading false news about the Army or Navy, or actions intended to obstruct the work of the military. The Smith Act of 1940 added specific wording that related to the overthrowing of the US government and was used to charge suspected communists after World War Two.
In more recent decades sedition has become “perhaps the very vaguest of all offences,” according to The Book of English Law. However it remains an effective tool for prosecutors looking to charge those who attempt to challenge the smooth running of the US government.
Who else has been convicted for sedition?
Since the Espionage Act changed the parameters of sedition a century ago, the charge has been brought against many groups and individuals believed to pose a threat to the government.
- Socialist Worker’s Party (1941) – 23 members of the Minneapolis-based group convicted for sedition in the first major use of the Smith Act.
- Great Sedition Trial (1944) – A number of Nazi sympathisers were brought up on sedition charges but were released after the case ended in mistrial
- Oscar Lopez Rivera (1981) – A Vietnam War veteran was sentenced to 70 years in prison for conspiring to support Puerto Rican independence group FALN, who carried out more than 130 bombings in the US.
- World Trade Center bombing (1993) – Ring leader Omar Abdel-Rahman and nine others were found guilty of seditious conspiracy for their role in the attack that killed six people.
The type of crime and the motivation of the perpetrator can vary greatly and is now used more broadly to cover the actions of extremist groups. In addition to the two convictions announced on Tuesday, there are five members of fellow right-wing militia group Proud Boys also indicted on charges of sedition.