In his cogent, nuanced account of the 1949 prosecution of American communists under the Smith Act, former Los Angeles Times staff writer Scott Martelle sees this case fitting into a troubling pattern. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the Patriot Act of 2001, he writes, "The United States has a habit of convulsing with fear during times of stress, and in the process undercutting the very freedoms of speech, political belief and religious expression that Americans profess to hold dear." The concerns that prompt this fear are real, Martelle stresses: There were communist spies in the 1940s, and there are terrorists at the turn of the 21st century. The steps taken to deal with them have generally been hasty and ill-considered, giving the government broad powers with unintended consequences.
The Smith Act vividly illustrates his point.