The Federalist Party controlled all three branches of the federal government, and its members suspected many Republican party stalwarts of sympathizing with France and the French Revolution and thus of fomenting disloyalty.
Congress consequently made it a crime to publish "any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings..intent to defame" the government, the Congress, or the President, "or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations..opposing or resisting any law of the United States,..to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government." Notably, malicious falsehoods about the Vice President—Thomas Jefferson, who was a leading Republican—were not covered by the law, and the law was scheduled to expire on March 3, 1801, the day before Federalist President John Adams's term was to end.
Early state constitutions generally included similar provisions, but there is no record of detailed debate about what those state provisions meant.
The Framers cared a good deal about the freedom of the press, as the Appeal to the Inhabitants of Quebec, written by the First Continental Congress in 1774, shows: The last right we shall mention regards the freedom of the press.
In fact, the most prominent free press debate of the years immediately following the Framing—the Sedition Act controversy—illustrated that there was little consensus on even as central an issue as whether the free press guarantee only prohibited prior restraints on publications critical of the government, or whether it also forbade punishment for "seditious" speech once it was made.
First Amendment Argument Essay
In 1798, the country was fighting the Quasi War with France.
The only speech restriction that was broadly enforced was traditional libel law.
Defaming another person was understood to be constitutionally unprotected.
Several publishers were in fact convicted under the law, often under rather biased applications of the falsity requirement.
Then Federalist Congressman John Marshall, although doubtful that the Sedition Act was wise, nonetheless argued that the free press guarantee meant only "liberty to publish, free from previous restraint"—free of requirements that printers be licensed, or that their material be approved before publication.