The Supreme Court and Libel

By Clifton O. Lawhorne | Go to book overview

1 Early Views of the Constitution States Not Bound by Free Press Guarantee

When state conventions ratified the Constitution of the United States, the price exacted of Congress was a Bill of Rights for all citizens.1 Such a bill was hammered out by Congress in its first session, and the result was the first Ten Amendments to the Constitution, which went into effect 15 December 1791. This Bill of Rights was led, then as now, by an amendment central to the individual's freedom to think, believe, associate, and communicate. Specifically, the First Amendment stated: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."2 The words were quite clear. Obviously, however, there was no uniform clarity, then as now, as to what "freedom of speech, or of the press" actually meant. Further, it quickly became evident that members of Congress felt that a free press was responsible for what was published and that a law could be passed to punish libels. Within seven years after the First Amendment stated "no law" could be passed restricting press freedom, Congress adopted the Sedition Law of 1798, which made it a crime to libel the government, the president, or Congress.

The law was passed at a time when many felt that there should be no libel against government, that United States independence had killed the old English common law of seditious libel that had been enforced in the colonies.3 And there was basis for the belief. The few attempts in the states to prosecute for the crime of libel had been dropped by authorities or soundly rejected by juries.4 And some of the early state constitutions had stipulated that citizens were free to investigate public officials in their public capacities and

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