1798 July 14

First Sedition Act Passed


The 1798 Sedition Act made it a crime to criticize the government or the president. President John Adams used the law to prosecute and imprison his political critics in what was the first great civil liberties crisis in American history. The law is often referred to in conjunction with a companion law as the Alien and Sedition Acts. It expired in March 1801, without a modern day-style test of its constitutionality before the Supreme Court. President Thomas Jefferson pardoned the victims of the law who had been punished for criticizing President John Adams.

The law should not be confused with the 1918 Sedition Act, passed on May 16, 1918, which became an instrument of the repression of dissent during World War I.

It was illegal to: “. . . write, print, utter or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States . . .”

Read the new book: Terri Diane Halperin, The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (2016)

Learn more: Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004)

Learn more about the 1798 Sedition Act: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/madison/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Sedition_Act_cases.pdf

Read the important new book on free speech: Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (2016)

Learn more about the 1798 Sedition Act prosecutions: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/aliensedition/alienseditionlinks.html

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