Now that we are halfway through the semester, and moved onto the electric age of media and communications, one aspect I find extremely interesting is the First Amendment. I am interested as to how it was implemented in the early republic. Was it controversial? What about slander and defamation were they issues back then like they are today? How strict was regulation of the First Amendment in early America?
Regarding the First Amendment, in my opinion, freedom of speech is the most prevalent. It is all encompassing, with press, religion, assembly and petition of government grievances. I believe there are elements of speech with all of those, which is why I find it the most important. According to Starr, the amendment did not promise freedom of speech. The law’s interpretation varied back then just as it still does to this day. Starr says, “The real meaning of the amendment was determined through political conflict.” What does this mean exactly? Starr goes on to explain a little more in depth about Federalist and Republican newspapers, and how difficult it was for Republican newspapers to be sustained. What is also interesting is how the book goes on to say the influence some politicians had. Merchants, who were the “chief advertisers”, supported the administration, which at the time was federalist. Even with the help of Jefferson, the National Gazette only lasted two years.
How far could newspapers really go when they wrote about the government and important people? How far could they push the limit? Like Benjamin Franklin Bache, he accused Washington of being a poor military general, and John Adams of being corrupt. Though Hamilton tried for prosecution for libel, there was no further action taken against Bache at the time. This would not last long, however, because in 1798 he was arrested for “seditious libel”, the first move by the federal government on “seditious speech”. Thus came the Sedition Act, “make it a crime to ‘write, print, utter or publish… any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings’ against government, the Congress, or the president, ‘with intent to defame.’” So while it is clear in writing, was it a controversial law back then? What about regular people? Obviously there was not the plethora of magazines focused on celebrity gossip, but were there laws to protect the general public as well? In the twentieth century, there is an increase in civil liberties, but at this time in American history, how strict was freedom of speech against the general population, and against influential people like official government workers? What would be considered pushing the limit? What would land you in jail? Was it way more strict then, than today? These are all questions I have regarding freedom of speech.
While Starr did touch upon freedom of speech briefly, what about freedom of religion, press, assemble? In New England you have a very strict Puritan religion early on. Were there papers more censored than others? What about just overall religion tolerance? Could religious views be expressed freely through the media without serious reprimand? Were there public religious assemblies of a less popular religion like Judaism without fear of being intimidated by others? Essentially, how large of a role did the First Amendment have in early history in America with liberal freedoms?
I just find this topic to be very interesting because the First Amendment can still be an issue today, and is still widely interpreted to this day. How strict was the Supreme Court with freedom of speech and so forth? Starr does touch upon some of these issues I am talking about, but I guess I would just like to see how the First Amendment was treated 200 years ago to be able to compare it to today.
 Paul Starr, The Creation of the Media (New York: Basic Books, 2004), 77-84.