What Happens If You're Found Guilty Of Sedition?

Sedition, or more accurately "seditious conspiracy," as defined by Title 18 of the US Code of Justice, Chapter 15, occurs when "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..." 

The key term here is "two or more," as sedition necessitates collusion between multiple individuals — a plot of sorts to sow dissent against the government. Sedition is easily confused with treason, which is more or less indirectly attacking the government by supporting known enemies, and insurrection, which is the actual act of attempting to wage war against the government. 

Bearing that in mind, sedition, while potentially limited to "organizing or encouraging opposition" against the government in writing or speech, as Britannica explains, is still a crime against the state. In the U.S., it's a federal offense that doesn't necessarily constitute treason but often goes hand in hand with it. Don't worry, though. This doesn't mean that you're going to be tossed in prison for writing scathing epigrams about governmental leaders on Facebook (as in certain countries like India, per The News Minute), or that you're going to be executed for doing so (as in Saudi Arabia, for instance, per Reuters).

Prison time and fines are the least of sedition's consequences

Still, though, sedition is a serious charge that carries with it a serious penalty if found guilty. And in a time when mobs are literally gatecrashing the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., as The New York Times relates, it's time to examine sedition and its consequences.

Per the US Code of Justice, sedition originally carried a prison sentence of up to 20 years, but in 1956 was reduced to six years. The guilty can also be "fined not more than $20,000." Interestingly, treason carries a smaller sentence of five years, but insurrection an understandably larger sentence of ten years. Of course, the implementation of sentences is rarely so clear-cut, especially since a person who engages in an insurrection, for instance, will most likely be tried on other charges as well (treason, assault, murder, etc.). And, let's not forget how this type of criminal record would likely disintegrate somebody's entire life and career. 

So, when Trump supporters rioted at the U.S. Capitol building and stormed inside, citing Trump as the reason they did so? It's not just a cause for existential concern and shock, it's grounds for accusations of sedition, as San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo says on The Mercury News.

"There is no more important or sacred institution in our nation than our elections, and the bedrock foundation of any democracy is the peaceful transfer of power. So any attempts to undermine that constitute seditious activity in my view and are worthy of prosecution."

Intent matters when it comes to sedition charges

Even before President-elect Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election by a resounding 306 to 232 electoral votes, Donald Trump was calling foul. He's repeatedly called the election an unlawful sham while citing a desire to uphold "law and order," per NPR. Back in October, The Nation published an article explaining the charge of sedition that Trump is, essentially, building against himself. Rolling Stone published a similar piece in December, built on the arguments of historian Sean Wilentz.

In Trump's case, as in the case of all seditious acts, intent may be the lynchpin. As a Law and Philosophy journal on JSTOR cites, the difference between freedom of expression and sedition may come down to an intent to cause harm, same as the difference between degrees of murder. Ultimately, if found guilty of sedition, according to Title 18 of the US Code of Justice, Chapter 15, those involved "shall each be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than twenty years, or both."