From the Backlist: Libel Laws and the Free Press

Each Thursday we will look at backlist titles that remain or have become relevant. In response to President Trump’s recent pledge to examine libel laws, we revisit two tiles in our Landmark Law Cases and American Society series that helped define defamation law and libel.

In 2011’s The Free Press Crisis of 1800; Thomas Cooper’s Trial for Seditious Libel Peter Charles Hoffer offers a nuanced view of the Sedition Act, often regarded as an extreme measure motivated by partisan malice, that weighs all the arguments and fairly considers the position of each side in historical and legal context.

The far-reaching Sedition Act of 1798 was introduced by Federalists to suppress Republican support of French revolutionaries and imposed fines and imprisonment “if any person shall write, print, utter or publish . . . scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States.” Such a broadly and loosely defined offense challenged the freedom of the American press and gave the government the power to drag offending newspaper editors into court. The trial of Thomas Cooper in particular became an important showcase for debating the dangers and limits of the new law, one with great implications for both the new republic and federal constitutional law.

“A terrific piece of work by one of our very best historians,” Peter S. Onuf said. “Written with verve and authority, it provides a masterful account of a little-known story with powerful implications for the subsequent history of free speech.”

Hoffer’s book is an authoritative review of this landmark case and a vital touchstone for anyone concerned about the role of government and the place of dissent in times of national emergency.

When the New York Times published an advertisement in 1960 that accused Alabama officials of willfully abusing civil rights activists, Montgomery police commissioner Lester Sullivan filed suit for defamation. Alabama courts, citing factual errors in the ad, ordered the Times to pay half a million dollars in damages. The Times appealed to the Supreme Court, which had previously deferred to the states on libel issues. The justices, recognizing that Alabama’s application of libel law threatened both the nation’s free press and equal rights for African Americans, unanimously sided with the Times.

In New York Times v. Sullivan; Civil Rights, Libel Law, and the Free Press, Kermit L. Hall & Melvin I. Urofsky provide a compact and highly readable updating of one of the most memorable decisions in the Supreme Court’s canon.

“By connecting what most commentators have seen as a controversial freedom of press case to the contentious civil rights movement that produced it, Hall and Urofsky have provided new insights into both legal and political history,” Steven F. Lawson said. “An excellent and accessible book about an important moment in American history.”