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Seditious Speech and Seditious Libel

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Seditious Speech and Seditious Libel.—Opposition to government through speech alone has been subject to punishment throughout much of history under laws proscribing “seditious” utterances. In this country, the Sedition Act of 1798 made criminal, inter alia, malicious writings which defamed, brought into contempt or disrepute, or excited the hatred of the people against the Government, the President, or the Congress, or which stirred people to sedition.966 In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan,967 the Court surveyed the controversy surrounding the enactment and enforcement of the Sedition Act and concluded that debate “first crystallized a national awareness of the central meaning of the First Amendment.... Although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history .... [That history] reflect[s] a broad consensus that the Act, because of the restraint it imposed upon criticism of government and public officials, was inconsistent with the First Amendment.” The “central meaning” discerned by the Court, quoting Madison’s comment that in a republican government “the censorial power is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people,” is that “[t]he right of free public discussion of the stewardship of public officials was thus, in Madison’s view, a fundamental principle of the American form of government.”

966 Ch. 74, 1 Stat. 596. Note also that the 1918 amendment of the Espionage Act of 1917, ch. 75, 40 Stat. 553, reached “language intended to bring the form of government of the United States . . . or the Constitution . . . or the flag . . . or the uniform of the Army or Navy into contempt, scorn, contumely, or disrepute.” Cf. Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919). For a brief history of seditious libel here and in Great Britain, see Z. CHAFEE, FREE SPEECH IN THE UNITED STATES 19- 35, 497-516 (1941).

967 376 U.S. 254, 273-76 (1964). See also Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919) (Justice Holmes dissenting).

Little opportunity to apply this concept of the “central meaning” of the First Amendment in the context of sedition and criminal syndicalism laws has been presented to the Court. In Dombrowski v. Pfister968 the Court, after expanding on First Amendment considerations the discretion of federal courts to enjoin state court proceedings, struck down as vague and as lacking due process procedural protections certain features of a state “Subversive Activities and Communist Control Law.” In Brandenburg v. Ohio,969 a state criminal syndicalism statute was held unconstitutional because its condemnation of advocacy of crime, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism swept within its terms both mere advocacy as well as incitement to imminent lawless action. A seizure of books, pamphlets, and other documents under a search warrant pursuant to a state subversives suppression law was struck down under the Fourth Amendment in an opinion heavy with First Amendment overtones.970

968 380 U.S. 479, 492-96 (1965). A number of state laws were struck down by three-judge district courts pursuant to the latitude prescribed by this case. E.g., Ware v. Nichols, 266 F. Supp. 564 (N.D. Miss. 1967) (criminal syndicalism law); Carmichael v. Allen, 267 F. Supp. 985 (N.D. Ga. 1966) (insurrection statute); McSurely v. Ratliff, 282 F. Supp. 848 (E.D. Ky. 1967) (criminal syndicalism). This latitude was then circumscribed in cases attacking criminal syndicalism and criminal anarchy laws. Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66 (1971).

969 395 U.S. 444 (1969). See also Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64 (1964); Ashton v. Kentucky, 384 U.S. 195 (1966), considered infra under “Defamation.”

970 Stanford v. Texas, 379 U.S. 476 (1965). In United States v. United States District Court, 407 U.S. 297 (1972), a Government claim to be free to wiretap in national security cases was rejected on Fourth Amendment grounds in an opinion which called attention to the relevance of the First Amendment.

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Last modified: June 9, 2014