By David L. Hebert
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Extra info for The Bill of Rights - Freedom of the Press
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 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 shewn (by a seasonable exertion 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.
The law against libel, Blackstone contends, is required to ensure that the press remains free, but does not overstep its bounds by defaming people or inciting violence. L ibels, libelli famosi, . . taken in their largest and most extensive sense, signify any writings, pictures, or the like, of an immoral or illegal tendency; but, in the sense under which we are now to consider them, are malicious defamations of any person, and especially a magistrate, made public by either printing, writing, signs, or pictures, in order to provoke him to wrath, or expose him to public hatred, contempt, and ridicule.
One of the most important factors at the time was the concept of libel, a common law remedy that allowed a person to sue the publisher of material that might seem harmful to that person’s reputation. Further, a criminal element of libel also existed; a publisher could be charged criminally for “seditious libel”—writings that might incite riots or public uprisings. In the early nineteenth century James Kent, a former justice of the New York Supreme Court, penned a lengthy and comprehensive treatise on the American law.
The Bill of Rights - Freedom of the Press by David L. Hebert