When the First Amendment was curtailed in the US

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams fought about what the First Amendment meant.

The First Amendment was not always safe in the US, even with the guarantees of the Constitution. Under the second US President, John Adams, Congress passed four bills called the Alien and Seditions Act. The bill that curtailed free speech and the free press was known as the Sedition Act of 1798. Before they could be repealed, many news editors and even a Congressman was arrested. The Supreme Court did not fully have its head when it came to their ability to cancel out laws that were unconstitutional.

The Sedition Act

The reason for the Sedition Act was for the Federalist majority to be able to oppress their Republican opponents. The bill made any opposition to the government illegal. People and the press were not allowed to in any way state their feelings. That meant no gatherings, written word, or even speeches. All of this was taken from English common law, which was written to protect the royalty. In that way, the Federalist congress said that the First Amendment applied only before the ideas were expressed, not after.

How the bill was enforced

Secretary of State Timothy Pickering was the person put in charge of rooting out the sedition. He started reading as many Republican newspapers as he could to look for people to arrest. The first person on trial was Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont. He opposed very publicly the Federalist push for war with France and the taxation to pay for it. He was convicted and ended up in jail because of a stacked jury. In the next election, Lyon was re-elected. When he got out, the Federalists tried to get him kicked out of Congress for being a convicted criminal, but were unsuccessful.

William Duane, a Republican editor, was called before the Senate over publishing information on a bill that was to change the electoral college. He went into hiding and kept writing. Benjamin Franklin Bache, editor of the Philadelphia Aurora, was arrested for having ill things to say about George Washington and John Adams. He died of yellow fever before his trial. These are just two examples of members of the press being arrested.

The repeal

After the 1890 election, Thomas Jefferson became President and he pardoned all those convicted. Congress repaid the fines. States had passed laws saying that the laws were not valid in within their borders, which set up the reasoning of the states that seceded during the Civil War. It also has many states doing this today. The Sedition Act was repealed by the Republican dominated Congress soon after the election. Such a law could be found unconstitutional today, but there would be the same fight. The First Amendment is constantly being considered and there are many laws that will be proposed that the people must watch out for.

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