Definition of seditious libel
Seditious libel was a criminal offence under English common law. Sedition is the offence of speaking seditious words with seditious intent: if the statement is in writing or some other permanent form it is seditious libel. A statement is seditious if it "brings into hatred or contempt" the Queen or her heirs, or the government and constitution, or either House of Parliament, or the administration of justice, or if it incites people to attempt to change any matter of Church or State established by law (except by lawful means), or if it promotes discontent among or hostility between British subjects. A person is only guilty of the offence if they intend any of the above outcomes. Proving that the statement is true is not a defence. It is punishable with life imprisonment.
The American scholar, Leonard W. Levy, argues that seditious libel "has always been an accordion-like concept, expandable or contractible at the whim of judges."
The crime of seditious libel was defined and established in England during the 1606 case "De Libellis Famosis" by the Star Chamber. The case defined seditious libel as criticism of public persons, the government, or King.
The phrase "seditious libel" and "blasphemous libel" were used interchangeably at that time, because of the strong unions between church and state. Blasphemy was later made a separate offence, and finally abolished with the passing of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. Sedition and seditious libel were abolished by section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Sedition by an alien is still an offence under section 3 of the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919.
The United States of America's Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 broke with the common law precedent of the time, in that it allowed for truth as a defense, though judges were not consistent in their rulings.
John Peter Zenger was arrested and imprisoned for seditious libel in 1734 after his newspaper criticized the colonial governor of New York. Zenger spent nearly 10 months in jail before being acquitted by a jury in August 1735. One hundred years later, Nova Scotia's Joseph Howe also won a jury acquittal on a charge of seditious libel after his newspaper printed allegations that local politicians and police were stealing from the people.
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