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 ?
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.
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.
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.
Sacheverell's seemingly endless trial before the House of Lords (1710) on charges that two of his sermons were "malicious, scandalous and seditious libels.
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.
warrants to seize the authors and printers of seditious libels.
publishers of a seditious libel, together with their papers, is not
Corwin further pointed out that individual states had continued to prosecute alleged seditious libels through the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century, notwithstanding constitutional clauses proclaiming liberty of the press.
In Chafee's telling, a primary aim of the Revolution was to banish the doctrine of seditious libel forever from American shores.
Seditious libels might threaten that stability and thus required severe punishment.
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.