Amendment I (Speech and Press)

Document 22

James Iredell, Charge to the Grand Jury, in Case of Fries

9 Fed. Cas. 829, no. 5,126 C.C.D.Pa. 1799

4. That objection is, that the act is in violation of this amendment of the constitution. 3 Swift's Ed. p. 455, art. 3 [1 Stat. 21]. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

The question then is, whether this law has abridged the freedom of the press? Here is a remarkable difference in expressions as to the different objects in the same clause. They are to make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press. When, as to one object, they entirely prohibit any act whatever, and, as to another object, only limit the exercise of the power, they must, in reason, be supposed to mean different things. I presume, therefore, that congress may make a law respecting the press, provided the law be such as not to abridge its freedom. What might be deemed the freedom of the press, if it had been a new subject, and never before in discussion, might indeed admit of some controversy. But, so far as precedent, habit, laws, and practices are concerned, there can scarcely be a more definite meaning than that which all these have affixed to the term in question. We derive our principles of law originally from England. There, the press, I believe, is as free as in any country of the world, and so it has been for near a century. The definition of it is, in my opinion, no where more happily or justly expressed than by the great author of the commentaries on the laws of England, which book deserves more particular regard on this occasion, because for near thirty years it has been the manual of almost every student of law in the United States, and its uncommon excellence has also introduced it into the libraries, and often to the favourite reading of private gentlemen; so that his views of the subject could scarcely be unknown to those who framed the amendments to the constitution: and if they were not, unless his explanation had been satisfactory, I presume the amendment would have been more particularly worded, to guard against any possible mistake. His explanation is as follows: "The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state. And this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequence of his own temerity. To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, as was formerly done, both before and since the Revolution, is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controversial points in learning, religion, and government. But to punish (as the law does at present) any dangerous or offensive writings, which, when published, shall, on a fair and impartial trial, be adjudged of a pernicious tendency, is necessary for the preservation of peace and good order, of government and religion, the only solid foundations of civil liberty. Thus the will of individuals is still left free; the abuse only of that free will is the object of legal punishment. Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry: liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive of the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects. A man (says a fine writer on this subject) may be allowed to keep poisons in his closet, but not publicly to vend them as cordials. And to this we may add, that the only plausible argument heretofore used for the restraining the just freedom of the press, 'that it was necessary to prevent the daily abuse of it,' will entirely lose its force when it is shown (by a reasonable exercise of the laws) that the press cannot be abused to any bad purpose, without incurring a suitable punishment: whereas, it never can be used to any good one when under the control of an inspector. So true will it be found, that to censure the licentiousness is to maintain the liberty of the press." 4 Bl. Comm. 151.

It is believed that, in every state in the Union, the common law principles concerning libels apply; and in some of the states words similar to the words of the amendment are used in the constitution itself or a contemporary bill of rights, of equal authority, without ever being supposed to exclude any law being passed on the subject. So that there is the strongest proof that can be of a universal concurrence in America on this point, that the freedom of the press does not require that libellers shall be protected from punishment. But, in some respects the act of congress is much more restrictive than the principles of the common law, or than, perhaps, the principles of any state in the Union. For, under the law of the United States, the truth of the matter may be given in evidence, which at common law, in criminal prosecutions, was held not to be admissible; and the punishment of fine and imprisonment, which at common law was discretionary, is limited in point of severity, though not of lenity. It is to be observed, too, that by the express words of the act, both malice and falsehood must combine in the publication, with the seditious intent particularly described. So that if the writing be false, yet not malicious, or malicious and not false, no conviction can take place. This, therefore, fully provides for any publication arising from inadvertency, mistake, false confidence, or anything short of a wilful and atrocious falsehood. And none surely will contend, that the publication of such a falsehood is among the indefeasible rights of men, for that would be to make the freedom of liars greater than that of men of truth and integrity.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 5, Amendment I (Speech and Press), Document 22
The University of Chicago Press

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