What is Seditious Libel?

Matt Brady

Seditious libel was a crime in 17th century England that made it illegal to speak ill of the government in practically any way, either in writing or speech. The law against government criticism was passed in England's Star Chamber—an extinct court of law—in 1606, during the case of De Libellis Famosis. Even after the Star Chamber ceased to exist in 1641, seditious libel lived on under English common law, which was passed on to America during colonial years. It even made its way into the early years of the United States under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. When it was introduced in England, seditious libel went hand-in-hand with blasphemous libel, which was considered any disparaging comments made about Christianity.

Seditious libel was a crime in 17th century England that made it illegal to speak ill of the government in practically any way.
Seditious libel was a crime in 17th century England that made it illegal to speak ill of the government in practically any way.

In 17th century England, being prosecuted on grounds of seditious libel was an unfortunate and ill-advantaged position in which to find oneself. Defendants were convicted only by judges; jurors weren't allowed to rule on libel cases. If the alleged libel was spoken with integrity and truth, the defendant was still more out of luck: grounds of truth could not be used as a defense. If convicted, the defendant could spend life in prison. Things weren't much better in America: prior to the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791, American immigrants were subject to the same charges of libel under English common law.

In 1734, a landmark case involving libel charges against New York Publisher John Peter Zenger gave an early indication that the U.S. would later on strongly resist libel laws. Zenger had been arrested and held in prison for eight months on charges of publishing libelous material about New York Colonial Governor William Crosby. Zenger was ultimately acquitted of the charges by a trial jury. The fact that Zenger was acquitted by a jury—something not done in England—and that the jury was swayed by the argument that Zenger spoke truthfully, which also wouldn't have counted in England, provided two great blows to seditious libel laws in America.

After the U.S. was founded in 1776, seditious libel was codified again into law with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. This occurred even after the passage of the Bill of Rights. Passed by a Federalist Congress and signed into law by President John Adams, the act was the result of paranoia about anti-government fervor from immigrants and opposing political parties. The act expired in 1801.

Seditious libel laws in England and the U.S. eventually became outdated, and were allowed to collect dust for centuries. In the case of the Alien and Sedition Acts, some of those laws expired; others simply fell out of common use. The legal assumption underlying those laws, however—that the government could, when it wanted to, resurrect old libel laws—wasn't overturned until the 20th century.

In America, such laws were once and for all declared unconstitutional in 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court, deciding on the New York Times Co. v. Sullivancase, ruled that public officials couldn't seek monetary damages for seditious libel unless statements were published with actual malice. In legal terms, an entity was guilty of actual malice if it recklessly published materials it knew to be false.

In England, such laws were officially dispelled by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, though they hadn't been practiced in more than a century. The act abolished old common law libel offenses more than four centuries after they'd been established. By 2009, passing provisions repealing libel laws wasn't that difficult for a country that had long considered such offenses culturally extinct.

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