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Freedom of the Press


The First Amendment forbids Congress from passing any law that would abridge the freedom of the press. Future Supreme Court rulings made this applicable to all lower levels of government as well.During the period when Congress was debating the Bill of Rights in 1789, Benjamin Franklin expressed concern about the possible abuse of such rights. In a piece entitled "An Account of the Supremest Court of Judicature in Pennsylvania, viz., The Court of the Press," he wrote:

In whose Favour and for whose Emolument this Court is established.In favour of about one citizen in five hundred, who, by education or practice in scribbling, has acquired a tolerable style as to grammar and construction, so as to bear printing; or who is possessed of a press and a few types. This five hundredth part of the citizens have the privilege of accusing and abusing the other four hundred and ninety-nine parts at their pleasure; or they may hire out their pens and press to others for that purpose.

Naturally, a free press requires that editors can feel personally safe when printing opinions that are offensive to the government. In 1799, the Philadelphia Aurora was one of the leading republican journals and a fierce critic of various federal actions, including the actions of the army in its suppression of Frie's Rebellion. As a result, its editor, William Duane, was attacked by some soldiers. Duane remonstrated in his newspaper, but no one was punished.The Alien and Sedition Acts were regarded by the republicans as an attack on the First Amendment. The Federalists argued that the Sedition Act left intact the freedom of the press guaranteed under common law, which permitted libel suits to be brought against someone who had told the truth.James Madison wrote a resolution that was adopted by the Virginia Assembly in January 1800, stating his interpretation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of the press, which would become the established position of the Supreme court:

To prohibit, therefore, the intent to excite those unfavorable sentiments against those who administer the Government, is equivalent to a prohibition of the actual excitement of them; and to prohibit the actual excitement of them is equivalent to a prohibition of discussions having that tendency and effect; which, again, is equivalent to a protection of those who administer the Government, if they should at any time deserve the contempt or hatred of the people, against being exposed to it by free animadversions on their characters and conduct. Nor can there be a doubt, if those in public trust be shielded by penal laws from such strictures of the press as may expose them to contempt, or disrepute, or hatred, where they may deserve it, that, in exact proportion as they may deserve to be exposed, will be the certainty and criminality of the intent to expose them, and the vigilance of prosecuting and punishing it; nor a doubt that a government thus entrenched in penal statutes against the just and natural effects of a culpable administration will easily evade the responsibility which is essential to a faithful discharge of its duty.


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