The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Nothing New Under the Sun, Here as to "Fake News" and "the Price of Libels"


I was just reminded of this quote, which I'd mentioned before but I thought was worth repeating. It's from Justice Iredell, instructing the grand jury in Case of Fries (that's the Fries of the Fries Rebellion), and in this part of the charge he is defending the Sedition Act of 1798, though Fries wasn't tried under that Act:

Ask the great body of the people who were deluded into an insurrection in the western parts of Pennsylvania, what gave rise to it? They will not hesitate to say, that the government had been vilely misrepresented, and made to appear to them in a character directly the reverse of what they deserved.

In consequence of such misrepresentations, a civil war had nearly desolated our country [I believe this refers to the Whiskey Rebellion -EV], and a certain expense of near two millions of dollars was actually incurred, which might be deemed the price of libels, and among other causes made necessary a judicious and moderate land tax, which no man denies to be constitutional, but is now made the pretext of another insurrection.

The liberty of the press is, indeed, valuable—long may it preserve its lustre! It has converted barbarous nations into civilized ones—taught science to rear its head—enlarged the capacity-increased the comforts of private life—and, leading the banners of freedom, has extended her sway where her very name was unknown. But, as every human blessing is attended with imperfection, as what produces, by a right use, the greatest good, is productive of the greatest evil in its abuse, so this, one of the greatest blessings ever bestowed by Providence on His creatures, is capable of producing the greatest good or the greatest mischief.

A pen, in the hands of an able and virtuous man, may enlighten a whole nation, and by observations of real wisdom, grounded on pure morality, may lead it to the path of honour and happiness. The same pen, in the hands of a man equally able, but with vices as great as the other's virtues, may, by arts of sophistry easily attainable, and inflaming the passions of weak minds, delude many into opinions the most dangerous, and conduct them to actions the most criminal.

Men who are at a distance from the source of information must rely almost altogether on the accounts they receive from others. If their accounts are founded in truth, their heads or hearts must be to blame, if they think or act wrongly. But, if their accounts are false, the best head and the best heart cannot be proof against their influence; nor is it possible to calculate the combined effect of innumerable artifices, either by direct falsehood, or invidious insinuations, told day by day, upon minds both able and virtuous.

Such being unquestionably the case, can it be tolerated in any civilized society that any should be permitted with impunity to tell falsehoods to the people, with an express intention to deceive them, and lead them into discontent, if not into insurrection, which is so apt to follow? It is believed no government in the world ever was without such a power….

Combinations to defeat a particular law are admitted to be punishable. Falsehoods, in order to produce such combinations, I should presume, would come within the same principle, as being the first step to the mischief intended to be prevented; and if such falsehoods, with regard to one particular law, are dangerous, and therefore ought not to be permitted without punishment—why should such which are intended to destroy confidence in government altogether, and thus induce disobedience to every act of it?

It is said, libels may be rightly punishable in monarchies, but there is not the same necessity in a republic. The necessity, in the latter case, I conceive greater, because in a republic more is dependent on the good opinion of the people for its support, as they are, directly or indirectly, the origin of all authority, which of course must receive its bias from them. Take away from a republic the confidence of the people, and the whole fabric crumbles into dust….

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.

Not by any means a ridiculous argument, of course; and perhaps the Sedition Act of 1798 has been unduly maligned. Still, if you think that the Act was on balance a mistake (which is currently our legal system's conventional wisdom), it's worth remembering the arguments that were made in its favor, and seeing their echoes today.