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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in classic literature ?
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." Shut out from politics, Steele turned once more to essay-writing, and published, one after the other, several papers of the same style as the Spectator, but none of them lived long.
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.
(115) An act for the more effectual prevention and punishment of blasphemous and seditious libels 1819.
'Seditious libel' originates in the 1606 De Libellis Famosis (105) decision of the Star Chamber which created a wide offence of sedition that enabled prosecutions against people who used words that could urge insurrection against those in authority, or who censured public men for their conduct, or criticised the institutions of the country.
Sacheverell's seemingly endless trial before the House of Lords (1710) on charges that two of his sermons were "malicious, scandalous and seditious libels." In his defense Sacheverell admitted that "he made the suggestion charged upon him, in the same words that are used in the Article," but insisted that the Commons had "mistaken his meaning." But, responded the prosecution, "it is clear and plain, that the words have no such limited or restrained sense, and that the meaning he would now put upon them is a mere shift and evasion." (28) Sergeant Parker, one of Sacheverell's accusers, complained bitterly of the difficulty of unraveling indirect rhetoric which everyone understood intuitively, but whose meaning was not otherwise demonstrable.
(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. In his Brief Explanation of a Late Pamphlet Entituled, The Shortest Way with the Dissenters ...
warrants to seize the authors and printers of seditious libels. They
publishers of a seditious libel, together with their papers, is not
One of Chafee's main historical inquiries concerned the matter of "seditious libel," an Anglo-American common-law doctrine that enabled governing officials to prosecute bothersome critics for their words alone.
Again, Chafee argued that: (1) the Founders had banished seditious libel from American law; (2) pre-World War free-speech cases were few in number and contained nothing worth knowing; and (3) Justice Holmes fashioned the valuable "clear and present danger" doctrine in March 1919 with speech-protective ends in mind.
And long after Britain did away with censorship, it continued to punish the crime of seditious libel - the publication of statements about government officials that would tend to expose them to public disrespect.
The most ambitious was the contention, building on the thinking of Jefferson and Madison, that the ability to criticize government was essential to a free society; that the Alabama damage award in favor of an officer of government effectively reinstated the concept of seditious libel, anathema to the First Amendment; and hence, that no such cause of action should be permitted.