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Libel - Libel In History

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Following introduction of the printing press in the 1400s, the English government tightly regulated what was published. Execution was possible for writing or printing libelous material about the church or government. Through evolving English common law in the 1600s, a person publishing malicious statements about government or government figures could be prosecuted under sedition libel laws. Punishment for publication through such laws replaced blatant censorship rules by the 1700s. English libel law was rigidly enforced in the young American colonies, largely aimed at restricting criticisms of the king and government. In the eighteenth century, as the United States was being formed, freedom of expression was poorly protected in England. The lack of clear standards spelled out in a constitution left individuals open to the whims of those in political power.

As a result, the framers of the American Constitution eagerly recognized freedom of the press and speech in the First Amendment. The amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." No mention of libel law was included but soon Congress passed a sedition libel law in 1789. Instantly the subject of great criticism, it was allowed to expire and President Thomas Jefferson pardoned all those who had been convicted under the law.

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