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Extra resources for The Bill of Rights - Freedom of the Press
The direct tendency of these libels is the breach of the public peace, by stirring up the objects of them to revenge, and perhaps to bloodshed. The communication of a libel to any one person is a publication in the eye of the law: and therefore the sending an abusive private letter to a man William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, circa 1765–1769. 31 32 Freedom of the Press is as much a libel as if it were openly printed, for it equally tends to a breach of the peace. For the same reason it is immaterial with respect to the essence of a libel, whether the matter of it be true or false; since the provocation, and not the falsity, is the thing to be punished criminally: though, doubtless, the falsehood of it may aggravate its guilt, and enhance its punishment.
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. In this excerpt, Kent provides an overview of the need to strike a balance between competing interests when determining the scope of the right of the freedom of the press. Specifically, he addresses the question of allowing defendants to argue the truthfulness of their statements as a defense against both criminal and civil charges of libel.
In the present case, we have no occasion to inquire as to the permissible scope of subsequent punishment. For whatever wrong the appellant has committed or may commit, by his publications, the state appropriately affords both public and private redress by its libel laws. As has been noted, the statute in question does not deal with punishments; it provides for no punishment, except in case of contempt for violation of the court’s order, but for suppression and injunction —that is, for restraint upon publication.