09/29/2013 05:30 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2013

Gag Me: A Brief History of Trying to Get Us to Stop Talking

In my last essay for these electronic pages, about the return of the strategy of "massive resistance" to the Affordable Care Act, I mention Florida Governor Rick Scott's new twist on an old favorite strategy of political conservatives: the gag rule.

I received several responses to that piece offering examples of other gag rules, and several questions about what the term meant. So I thought it might be fun to do a quick history of the conservative attempts to gag us.

Broadly speaking, a gag rule is any attempt by politicians to make problems go away by forbidding or making it illegal to talk about them. In Florida, Scott really, really doesn't like the Affordable Care Act, and he thinks he it will vanish if people don't talk about it. Thus, Scott has banned employees in county health offices from explaining to clients how to enroll in Obamacare.

The term "gag rule," and the impulse behind it, entered American politics in the 1830s as part of the fight to end slavery. In an attempt to get Congress to act on the issue, Northern abolitionists exercised their constitutional right "to petition the government for a redress of grievances" and they did so with a vengeance. In 1837-38 alone, Northern abolitionists sent 130,000 petitions to Congress demanding an end to slavery.

Faced with this onslaught of abolitionist energy, Southern Congressmen engineered the gag rule. Passed in May 1836, the rule automatically tabled any petition dealing with slavery, stifling any discussion of the issue at all in the House. Unable to defend the indefensible, pro-slavery apologists tried to make the issue go away by shooting the messenger. Oddly, it didn't work.

As President Woodrow Wilson prepared to take the nation into World War I, Congress again imposed a gag rule, not simply on itself but on the entire nation. Two of them, actually. In 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act and a year later the Sedition Act. The latter prohibited any American from saying, writing or publishing material that contained what the government deemed to be "abusive or disloyal language" about the war effort or about the United States more generally. The war to "make the world safe for democracy" led to the gagging of basic democratic rights at home.

Across the 20th century, public school teachers have been subjected to any number of gag rules over what they can and cannot teach, but none more so than science teachers when they have tried to teach Darwinian biology. The Tennessee state law at the center of the 1925 Scopes trial gagged teachers from teaching Darwin, and it is important to remember that in that trial gagging won and Darwin lost. The court found that John Scopes had violated the Butler Act and after that court victory Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and other states all adopted versions of the law gagging any discussion of Darwin in the public schools. (For more on Darwin's strange career in America see my essay)

Over the last generation doctors and other health professionals have found themselves gagged in a variety of ways when they want to discuss family planning and abortion with their patients. Currently 21 states have laws that make it illegal for any state employee or organization that receives state funding from mentioning abortion as a medical option. Likewise, a growing number of states have passed laws forcing health care providers to lecture their patients on the dangers of abortion (none, so far as I know, force doctors to list the dangers women face carrying pregnancies to term).

In 1984 Ronald Reagan imposed the "global gag rule" on abortion on any NGO that received American money. Not only could such organizations not perform abortions if they wanted to receive US aid, but they could not counsel patients about the procedure or refer them to other providers. Not in cases of rape, incest, or when maternal health was endangered. After Bill Clinton lifted the global gag rule, George W. Bush reinstated it.

Climate scientists may be joining the ranks of biology teachers and medical professionals in finding themselves gagged. In 2012 the North Carolina legislature, a body now fully taken over by the radical right, passed a law prohibiting the state from using climate-change models of sea-level rises as the basis of coastal land-use planning. Stephen Colbert mocked the law at the time by joking, "If your science gives you a result you don't like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved." To which the gaggers nodded yes without getting the sarcasm.

That joke encapsulates the intellectual rationale of all gag rules, going back to 1836. Faced with situations you don't like, or facts that offend, you try to stop the rest of us from talking about it at all. Never mind that gagging people doesn't actually solve any problem. The first gag rule didn't make the outrage over slavery go away, nor did the global gag rule prevent women from going through dangerous pregnancies, nor will the North Carolina legislature's scientific wisdom keep the water from rising.

Gag rules belong in the same category as book-banning and heretic burning, and you'd think gaggers would have learned the lesson by now. After all, perhaps the first modern example of a gag rule took place in the early 17th century. When Galileo Galilei, the Italian scientist, demonstrated that the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way 'round, he was hauled before the Catholic inquisition, forced to recant his findings and placed under house arrest.

And all the while, the earth kept orbiting the sun.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is "To Promote the General Welfare: The Case for Big Government," (Oxford University Press).