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Defamation

* * * Although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history. Fines levied in its prosecution were repaid by Act of Congress on the ground that it was unconstitutional. [Cc] Calhoun, reporting to the Senate on February 4, 1836, assumed that its invalidity was a matter ‘which no one now doubts.’ [Cc] Jefferson, as President, pardoned those who had been convicted and sentenced under the Act and remitted their fines, stating: ‘I discharged every person under punishment or prosecution under the sedition law, because I considered, and now consider, that law to be a nullity, as absolute and as palpable as if Congress had ordered us to fall down and worship a golden image.’ [Cc] The invalidity of the Act has also been assumed by Justices of this Court. [Cc]

These views reflect a broad consensus that the Act, because of the restraint it imposed upon criticism of government and public officials, was inconsistent with the First Amendment. There is no force in respondent’s argument that the constitutional limitations implicit in the history of the Sedition Act apply only to Congress and not to the States. It is true that the First Amendment was originally addressed only to action by the Federal Government, and that Jefferson, for one, while denying the power of Congress ‘to control the freedom of the press,’ recognized such a power in the States.[Cc] But this distinction was eliminated with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment and the application to the States of the First Amendment’s restrictions. [Cc]

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