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Seditious Libel

speech government crime legal

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.

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