By Emma Austin
Questions to ponder: The First Amendment with its assertions of free speech and a free press was a revolutionary idea when it was written in the late 18th century. Why did the architects of a new government deliberately choose to create a mechanism for the unfettered criticism of the new government?
When the Founding Fathers drafted the First Amendment, they purposefully used broad terms needing interpretation from the judicial system. This has allowed the amendment to remain applicable for over 200 years as the country changed. The Founding Fathers couldn’t have foreseen how technology would affect America’s development and modernization; no one could have predicted that in 2017 there would be handheld devices allowing written and verbal communication in an instant with the tap of a screen or how the significance of freedom of speech and the press would be changed by it.
In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, many colonists were dissatisfied with the Great Britain’s regulations on the press. In his book Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment, Anthony Lewis writes about colonial printers like John Peter Zenger who were prosecuted for “seditious libel,” or running anything that sounded like criticism of the King or colonial officials. At the time, it was illegal to publish any material criticizing the government, regardless of whether the accusations were true.
So, after America won its independence, the architects of the new government deliberately designed a Constitution that allowed freedom of speech and press, including criticism of the government. They recognized the power of the government should be in the hands of the people it ruled, including the freedom to question the government or speak out against it without being punished or silenced.
However, in 1798, the Senate passed the Sedition Act, making it a crime to publish “any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States. . . or to bring them. . . into contempt or disrepute.” Violators were subject to imprisonment and a fine of up to $2,000, according to Lewis in Freedom for the Thought That We Hate.
Lewis writes that the Sedition Act’s constitutionality was never tested in the Supreme Court during its two and a half years of existence, and “if it had been, the Court would almost certainly have upheld the law.” If such a law were brought up today, it would immediately be shot down as unconstitutional. However, the press was very different during that time than today. In The Press and the Presidency, John Tebbel and Sarah Miles Watts write about George Washington’s concern with the press’s attacks on him and mention “the role of the press in the developing quarrel between Hamilton and Jefferson, who used their newspapers as assault weapons.” The value of unbiased reporting is much higher among journalists now than it was during America’s early years.
Now, we see our role as being the watchdog of the government as a whole and politicians of all parties, not supporting one politician over another or aiding attacks between them.