It was actually a crime to criticize the royal government in colonial America. Untold thousands were fined, imprisoned and shamed for the impertinence, not incidentally silencing many thousands more.
We owe it to them, not to mention ourselves and our progeny, to wonder: Is the current U.S. government bringing back such a law without saying so?
The crime of “seditious libel,” instituted by Parliament in 1275, made it illegal to spread “any slanderous News … or false News or Tales where by discord or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the King and his people or the other great men of the Realm.”
Our colonial forebears rebelled against it, and thank God for that. Courageous newspaper publishers and editors made certain of it, against the certainty of persecution and prosecution. Thus emboldened, the common man accelerated the rebellion in the years before the revolution, in discussions of free-minded men in coffee houses and taverns.
And even with no stated power to do so, juries increasingly acquitted their peers of seditious libel, which only added to the acidity of the local newspaper rants against tyranny and taxes.
As recalled in Stephen D. Solomon’s Revolutionary Dissent, the colonials’ delicious subversiveness was also inspired by earlier essays in England from a pair of liberty lovers writing under the anonymous name of Cato, the ancient Roman senator. Among their 144 essays, they were bold enough to assert, in the shadow of the king himself:
- “Where a man cannot call his Tongue his own he can scarce call any Thing else his own: Whoever would overthrow the Liberty of a Nation must begin by subduing the Freeness of Speech.”
- “That Men ought to speak well of their Governours, is true, while their Governours deserve to be well Spoken of, but to do public Mischief without Hearing of it is only the Prerogative and Felicity of Tyranny.”
- “The exposing therefore of publick wickedness, as it is a Duty which every man owes to Truth and his Country, can never be a Libel in the Nature of Things.”
Neither the king nor his handpicked colonial overseers bought into any of that – nor does the federal government of the United States of America seem to in 2024.
Indeed, it appears the current regime is set on reanimating the centuries-dead monster of seditious libel without proclamation – and with sad little protest.
The landmark free speech case Missouri v. Biden, now before the U.S. Supreme Court, has only begun to expose the breadths and depths the Biden administration has traveled to suppress dissent – most notably on COVID-19 origins, restrictions, masks and vaccines, as well as the integrity of the 2020 election, but truly on any matter the intelligentsia considers “disinformation.” Think “Hunter Biden laptop,” which saw an entire major newspaper, the New York Post, have its Twitter account deactivated.
The laptop story, turns out, was more than legitimate, the suppression of which is reminiscent of this: Solomon writes of a seditious libel case against newspaper editor John Peter Zenger, ultimately acquitted – in no small part thanks to his audacious attorney Andrew Hamilton, who told the jury that “the suppressing of evidence ought always to be taken for the strongest evidence.”
It’s an argument we should hold to today.
The Twitter Files most famously exposed government/Big Tech collusion to suppress speech disfavored by our ruling elite, dissent that the former Twitter, Facebook and other platforms silenced altogether or removed to a quiet corner in social media purgatory.
This is not an inconsequential marriage, this unholy matrimony between government and Big Tech. Social media has become what coffee houses and taverns and newspapers were in 1700s America: the proverbial town square where ordinary citizens collaborate on keeping their government accountable and their own necks free of yokes.
If only the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world had an iota of the integrity and authority-defying pluck of our colonial newspapermen. Alas, they appear instead to actually be colluding with the government to silence or sideline disfavored speech. A trial judge and an appeals court have issued separate injunctions preventing it.
“The [trial] court found that Big Tech changed its terms-of-service policies at the demand of the White House,” explains Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey. “They changed their algorithms to satisfy the federal officials’ demand.”
Indeed, the Missouri v. Biden plaintiffs claim that as early as 2018, congressional staffers actually showed social media companies copies of “potentially adverse legislation” if they did not censor online content. Bailey says that in emails to social media companies, Biden officials said they didn’t care what content was true or untrue – they simply wanted a specific narrative put out, and other views silenced.
Amazingly, Bailey says that in a hearing before the trial judge last year Biden administration lawyers wouldn’t even concede Americans’ unfettered right to criticize the president or question the legitimacy of the 2020 election or COVID measures. “Well, it depends,” was their answer.
Well, no, it doesn’t.
Today’s heavy-handed government overseers surely realize what the Cato essays warned of, and are therefore doing precisely and purposefully what they are doing: “Whoever would overthrow the Liberty of a Nation must begin by subduing the Freeness of Speech.”
Added Samuel Adams: “There is nothing so fretting and vexatious; nothing so justly terrible to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a FREE PRESS. … ‘the bulwark of the People’s liberties.’ For this reason, it is ever watched by those who are forming plans for the destruction of the people’s liberties, with an envious and malignant eye.”
The British government centuries ago prohibited the printing of anything without a license ahead of time, “assuring that dissent came stillborn to the world,” Solomon writes. In Missouri v. Biden two separate courts have already seen ample evidence that today’s government is doing the same through social media censorship.
We look hopefully now to the country’s most Supreme Court for affirmation of our right to dissent – so hard-won by our intrepid ancestors in courts, public squares and drafty 18th-century jail cells.