When the right and duty to criticize government and its officials is under attack in the United States, the democracy is threatened. The idea of holding those in power accountable, and its origin, assume particular importance. While this “central meaning” of the First Amendment culminated with Justice William Brennan’s New York Times Co. v. Sullivan opinion in 1964, the process of discovering that meaning actually began more than a century and a half before. Near the end of the eighteenth century, a political battle ensued over the meaning of the First Amendment. The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 were signed into law by a chief executive who sought to control political criticism of him and the government over which he presided. This article focuses on the role of Thomas Jefferson in the resistance to these laws. This battle, according to Justice Brennan, “[F]irst crystalized a national awareness of the central meaning of the First Amendment.” This article posits that this conflict resulted in birth of the modern First Amendment – the discovery of its central meaning – and is premised on the notion that revisiting the events described herein is especially relevant within a period in which officials in high office threaten speech and press rights.
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