Seditious Libel

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Seditious Libel

Written or spoken words, pictures, signs, or other forms of communication that tend to defame, discredit, criticize, impugn, embarrass, challenge, or question the government, its policies, or its officials; speech that advocates the overthrow of the government by force or violence or that incites people to change the government by unlawful means.

The crime of seditious libel was used by the British Crown to stifle political opponents and consolidate power in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. English juries were permitted only to decide the factual issue of whether or not the defendant had communicated the speech in public; judges decided the legal issue of whether the communication constituted seditious libel. Truth was not a defense, and malicious intent to cause Sedition was not an element of the crime.

In the United States, legal experts disputed whether the English Common Law of seditious libel remained intact after the American Revolution. Federalist Party members in Congress concluded that it did, enacting the Sedition Act of 1798, which made it a crime to "write, print, utter or publish … any false, scandalous and malicious" words against the government, the president, or Congress. The U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the debate in new york times co. v. sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (U.S. 1964), holding that the First Amendment forbids public officials from recovering money damages for libel in civil court, unless they can prove that the allegedly injurious speech was defamatory, false, and made with "actual malice," or in reckless disregard of the truth.


Censorship; Freedom of Speech; Freedom of the Press; Libel and Slander.

References in classic literature ?
Those who have sufficient power usually imprison or put to death any one who tries to shake their faith in their own excellence or in that of the universe; it is for this reason that seditious libel and blasphemy have always been, and still are, criminal offences.
The Tories were in power, and he was a Whig, and he presently found himself expelled from the House of Commons for "uttering seditious libels.
In an era in which an attack on the established Church was tantamount to an attack on the state, even playful mockery of clergymen could be read as seditious libel and a threat to law and order.
98) See generally: Philip Hamburger, 'The Development of the Law of Seditious Libel and the Control of the Press' (1985) 37 Stanford Law Review 661; Roger B Manning, 'The Origins of the Doctrine of Sedition' (1980) 12(2) Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 99.
Officially, copyright began in Britain with the Statute of Anne in 1710, but he begins with the trial and pillorying of Daniel Defoe in 1703 for seditious libel in his satirical pamphlet The Shortest Way with the Dissenters.
2) We find further evidence of the belief that satire offered immunity from prosecution in Defoe's response to the indictment of The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702) for seditious libel.
After his successful defense of Rupert Murdoch's News in 1960 in a seditious libel case, John Jefferson Bray made a powerful enemy who coveted the position that Chief Justice Bray would come to hold; an enemy who would then ruthlessly target Bray's unconventional private life.
In 1735, a jury found John Peter Zenger of the New York Weekly Journal not guilty of committing seditious libel against the colonial governor of New York, William Cosby.
Our Founding Fathers viewed those royal governors who prosecuted colonists for seditious libel (and who presumed to dictate what could be published) to be anathema to the unalienable right of liberty, so they placed in the Bill of Rights an amendment designed to end that practice.
Laws against blasphemy or seditious libel are clear examples in the First Amendment context.
Seditious libel punishes criticism of the government.