Advocating the overthrow of the government of the United States by force or subversion

It has been widely reported that South Carolina now requires "subversive groups" to register with the Secretary of State (and pay a $5 filing fee).

Curiously, the list of organizations which must register include "an organization subject to foreign control." I wonder if this means that all consulates have to register, and that when any foreign dignitary visits South Carolina, they have to pay a $5 filing fee. (Not to mention all foreign-owned companies like Shell Oil.)

Actually, it has been pointed out that a "subversive organization" includes one which advocates, teaches, or practices the propriety of controlling the government of the United States. I guess this means all political parties are subversive organizations. (Something most of us knew already.)

And apparently, in your registration, you also have to include the bylaws or minutes of meetings from the last year. I wonder whether you have to resubmit the minutes each year. I'm sure somebody could keep a government bureaucrat busy for a long time by submitting hundreds of pages of "minutes".

Anyway, this is a long and largely superfluous set-up for a different story. The mother of a colleague of mine came to visit from Canada. For some reason, the United States requires visitors to fill out a questionnaire asking them whether they are a drug dealer, whether they are a Nazi war criminal, and this question:

Do you advocate the overthrow of the United States government by force or subversion?

The sweet old lady studied the question for a while, then circled force.

Bonus weirdness: On the form, it also says "Answering Yes will not necessarily exclude you from admission to the United States."

Comments (43)
  1. Gabe says:

    Well, I certainly can’t imagine how you could possibly overthrow the government with svn!

  2. Sven says:

    I use subversion daily.

  3. NUXI says:

    Subversion is totally unsuited to overthrowing the government. Real anarchists know that they should use a DVCS like git or mercurial for that task.

  4. Jim says:

    Look like the question is copied directly from the Chinese law enforcement field manual

  5. Tony Cox [MSFT] says:

    My permanant residency (a.k.a. Green Card)application contained the following question:

    Are you applying for permanent residency in the United States for the purpose of committing espionage? If yes, please give details.

    For some reason, I found the second part especially hilarious.

  6. nickj says:

    Was it Peter Ustinov who replied, "sole purpose of visit"?

  7. James Schend says:

    Matthew: I’m not Californian, but I hear there’s a very real effort taking place in that state to convene a Constitutional Convention and rewrite the state Constitution.

    (Probably to address the obvious shortcomings in their Referendum system which a lot of people blame for their current economic state.)

    I think it’s overkill, but, as an American, I can’t help but be impressed at the effort.

  8. Jim says:


    Nice explaination, I wonder if any government can nicely put overthowing itself as a choice (Legal, violent or whatever)? Like in the software, it can have built in option to destroy itself under some circumstances? Exciting!

  9. James Schend says:

    Jim: I think the theory is that since US Constitutions are (generally) "living documents", there should never be a reason to overthrow the government. You can simply modify the part of the document that’s causing the disagreement… obviously this didn’t work as planned in the 1860s, and considering that that aspect of the Constitution is almost completely forgotten, I don’t know how likely it is to change anymore.

    You could solve the gun control debate in one fell swoop by simple amending the Second Amendment…

  10. kog999 says:

    "You could solve the gun control debate in one fell swoop by simple amending the Second Amendment"

    That wouldn’t really solve the debate just allow the government to take away peoples guns. if you want to solve the debate you need to modify the first amendment so people who do not agree with you can’t voice their views and there will be no debate.

  11. pbrown says:

    It’s quite common for a blog commenter to call out the topic of a blog post as old.  Reporting on an event from 1951 is certainly impressive, though.

    I’m looking forward to a blog post on Win7’s impressive new punchcard organization features.

  12. Marquess says:

    Are they still asking (male) visitors to the USA if they are terrorists? (Verbatim: “Are you a terrorist?”)

    Still a reason for me not to set foot in that country.

  13. Jared says:

    A police office friend of mine says that the only law we really need is one against "criminal stupidity".

  14. Travis says:

    As stupid as it may seem to ask such a crazy question, I believe its intent is to gain a stronger legal footing, should you actually do something while in this country.

  15. Steve says:

    @Marquess – So, you are a Terrorist?

  16. keith says:

    As it happens, the first government of the United States, the one established by the 1781 Articles of Confederation, was subverted by the 1787 Constitution under the rules specified in the new document (when 9 states ratified the new document) rather than the rules of the existing document, since the Articles of Confederation required unanimous consent of all state legislatures to be modified.  

    Fun fact: the first individual whose title includes the substring "President of the United States" (full title being President of the United States in Congress Assembled) was not George Washington, but this guy, under the Articles of Confederation:

  17. Steve says:

    @Marquess – You misunderstand. In the U.S. it seems to be quite common to have you specifically state that you do not intend to engage in illegal activities, presumably so when you do engage in said illegal activities, your lie about your intent is leveraged to enhance any other charges. I think it is also a catch-all charge that can be made if the actual crime isn’t as easily provable.  

  18. kog999 says:

    @Marquess – if they can’t easily prove you engaged in illegal activities how is proving you lied about engaging in illiegal activites any easier. proving someone lied about doing something requires proof they did something.

  19. me says:


    It is a shortened version of the name "President of the United States in Congress Assembled".  So it is similar in name.  But a whole different role.  The role is much more similar in role to what the vice president does today (or is supposed to do as they usually let the senate appoint a junior senator to do the ‘mundane tasks’) in the senate.

    Not quite the same thing but very similar in role and function.

  20. Steve D says:

    Good thing that the British TV show Dr Who was not made in SC :-) I wonder if they would have declared it at the time?

    <a href="">Doctor Who ‘had anti-Thatcher agenda'</a>

  21. BC says:

    I agree with the sweet old lady – using force is a straight-forward, above-board, even honorable activity.  Subversion is cowardly.  

  22. Obvious says:


    Given that keith actual knew about the Articles of Confederation, I would assume he knew enough about said Confederation to understand the differences between it and the Current Federal system.  It appears to me that he was just point out a similar named position, not saying that the position was the same.

  23. me says:


    He presented it as a ‘fun fact’ thus inferring something else than what is true.  I guess I misread it…  However, you could read his statement either way…

  24. Matthew says:

    @ Jim –

    The question as given in Raymond’s anecdote is fairly standard and relatively common, particularly in any work relating to the government. South Carolina’s version, on the other hand, is far broader (and unconventional/uncommon).

    The difference being the "force or subversion" part. Another form would be "violent overthrow", though that isn’t as common as the former. The reason that this distinction matters is that the US Consitution supports massive *legal* modification; one could _technically_ consider pushing for a new constitutional convention (or even a sweeping set of amendments) a form of "overthrowing" the government, even though it is both legal and in line with the core values on which the current government was originally created. Basically, if you work within the system to change it as intended, all is well. If you work outside the system – typically using violent and/or subversive means – then that’s not so good.

    Of course, there are two things to remember in such discussions:

    1) The chance of somebody who _does_ support a violent overthrow actually being truthful is slim to nil.

    2) The State Constituion of New Hampshire includes an explicit "Right to Revolution".

  25. Bob says:

    If a thousand people each submitted a thousand pages of minutes once a week, it would take a beaurecrat several minutes to shove them all into a giant box that gets sent off to be warehoused.

    Its not like they’ld actually read all the forms.

    And really, it sounds like another round of "lets do something so we can tell the voters we’re taking a stand against anti-american groups". It doesn’t have to be effective or efficient – it just has to persuade enough voters that anyone objecting is anti-american and thus bad even if the objection is that it’s a waste of taxpayer money that won’t help.

    This is much like the "look how much effort we go to to keep you safe from evil-doers" public relations that has been the main job of customs officers for a very long time.

  26. Marquess says:

    “As stupid as it may seem to ask such a crazy question, I believe its intent is to gain a stronger legal footing, should you actually do something while in this country.”

    I believe these are already very much illegal *without* lying about one’s intentions.

  27. Marquess says:

    It’s times like these that I believe that the USA (and possible the United Kingdom) really missed out on being conquered by Napoleon (and subsequently adopt the code civil). No criminals ever announce their crimes beforehand, even when directly questioned. It’s somewhat counterproductive. And no decent court should hold *that* against the defendant.

  28. Slugsie says:

    I guess everyone in SC has completely forgotten that the original governing body of America was the British, and they were overthrown by Force. Just goes to show that overthrowing a government by whatever means isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I’m British I tend to think that in this instance it was. Recently you USicans seem completely incapable of handling yourselves and your freedoms, so I think you should hand yourselves back to us. ;)

  29. Marquess says:


    No, that’s just silly. But you might want to put it under United Nations trusteeship (administered by Canada and perhaps Mexico) until they look like a Nation Of The Free again.

  30. Will says:

    The reason for the question on the entry forms is it gives an easy way of kicking a person out of the country.  You answer "false" or "no" or whatever the negative is it is later found you are member of some group, for whatever reason, and you can be kicked out for lying on your entry form.

    Easier then proving some other crime.

  31. Gabe says:

    If I were in that sweet old lady’s shoes, I might respond, "Are those my only two choices?"

  32. Mark (The Other Mark) says:

    I think Will has it.

    The form of the question I had was "Do you, or have you ever, advocated…" etc. I believe either that question, or another, also asked about being part of an organization that did the same.

    The purpose of the question is two fold- If I say yes, it can immediately flag the document for closer inspection. It’s not an automatic disqualification, but is a flag.

    If you answer no, and are a member of a group that has done so in the past, now you have advocated the overthrow of the government, and lied about it. Most forms that ask this question have some statement on them, "I swear the answers to the questions above are true to the best of my knowledge", so you’ve lied under oath.

    While advocating the violent overthrow of the US Government isn’t enough to deny you a Visa, or other similar activities which ask these sort of questions, perjury probably is. In fact, as already mentioned, depending on how you did it, it might be federally protected free speech.

    Even then, with all the people making smart aleck remarks on them, and the sheer number of these sort of forms being processed, you’d probably have to do something to make people suspicious for any of this to matter.

  33. keith says:

    @me, I meant nothing more than as a fun fact, it’s simply a bit of trivial trivia.  Heck, even better than stretching for a substring comparison, a Captain in the US Navy outranks by several levels a Captain in the US Army, yet they’re both titled "Captains" in one of the seven uniformed services of the USA, so government leadership titles don’t define responsibility by the power of the name itself.  It’s within the context of the legal framework that establishes the title, and that legal framework was replaced in the matter of the President in 1789.  

    @Marquess, if you want Napoleonic Code in the United States (and apropos of the topic, a very happy Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, and let le bon temps roule to all!), there is always Louisiana.  

  34. avxo says:

    Older forms that a friend of mine had to fill out included such gems as (paraphrasing here): "Are you a communist or a member of a communist party" and "Have you ever had sex with a prostitute"

  35. B.Y. says:

    I advocate the overthrow of Raymond Chan. All other RC-subversives please register here.

  36. John Dilley says:

    And I thought was a joke…

  37. R Singers says:

    I know someone who choose sedition when filling out the US temporary visa.  When asked by the border officials he said as he was given only two choices and was a committed conscientious objector there was really only one answer he could choose.  He described the whole experience as "humourless".

  38. R Singers says:

    Another wee point about the US temporary visa form.  When I last signed one it said

    "Have you been on a farm".

    I’m from New Zealand.  It’s fairly hard to avoid every having been on a farm in New Zealand.

    All of the other temporary visa forms I have seen specify a time range like

    "Have you been on a farm in the last 30 days?".

  39. David Walker says:

    @Matthew:  I think you misunderstood the humor.  The little old lady read it as a "choose one" question.

  40. Sinan Unur says:

    Actually, I find such questions refreshing: Here is, for a change, a government that takes what you write at face value.

    The first time I saw and answered those questions was a great feeling.

    There was no "bring three certified letters from your district manager, local police station and the Ministry of Justice proving that you have not experienced any negative feelings towards asparagus" etc.

    It goes along with my experience that one is consistently treated like a human being at U.S. consulates rather than cattle.

    There is an advantage to putting these questions with Yes/No check-boxes: You are assumed to be telling the truth until you are found out not to be. And, if you are found not have told the truth, there is no need (in theory) for a lengthy process trying to deport you for espionage or so called subversive activities: Having lied on your visa application is enough.

  41. Ken Hagan says:

    I always understood the motivation behind US gun law was to ensure that the general populace always had enough firepower to overthrow their government should the need arise. Therefore, being willing to overthrow the US government by force is pretty much a constitutional obligation on you Yanks.

    Perhaps that’s why answering "yes" doesn’t disqualify you from entry.

  42. JeffP says:

    The following is quoted from a Canadian Immigration application:

    "[Have you ever] been associated with a group that used, uses, advocated or advocates the use of armed struggle or violence to reach political, religious or social objectives?"

    I wonder if being a US citizen qualifies?

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