The Return of Seditious Libel


Does the First Amendment protect a speaker’s interest in reaching a particular audience if the expressive activity occurs in a traditional public forum? The intuitive answer to this question might be “yes” or “usually,” but the federal courts have taken a decidedly different approach—at least when the intended speech is political protest and the intended audience includes high-ranking government officials or political party leaders. Indeed, so long as government efforts to squelch political dissent invoke the talisman of “security” and are facially content and viewpoint neutral, the Speech and Assembly Clauses of the First Amendment have proven remarkably ineffective at protecting an individual’s right to protest in a location physically proximate to incumbent government officials—even in a traditional public forum.

This Article questions whether genuine security concerns actually motivate the censoring of political dissent. It posits instead that judges have wrongly permitted local, state, and federal officials to equate the government’s dignity interests with its national security interests. In short, avoiding embarrassment as a result of media coverage, as much as genuine concern about public safety, undergirds decisions to squelch dissent proximate to the venues in which major political theater occurs. This practice of censoring core political speech to avoid embarrassing incumbent politicians constitutes a limited return of the doctrine of seditious libel, which also equated the embarrassment of government officials with harm to national security.

Consistent with the oft-forgotten Petition Clause of the First Amendment, which proclaims “the right of the people . . . to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” this Article argues that citizens should have a right to bring grievances to the personal attention of their ostensibly democratically accountable government. As an historical matter, the First Amendment right of petition carried with it absolute immunity from prosecution for seditious libel: Citizens could bring complaints, both in person and in groups, to government officials to seek a redress of grievances without fear of reprisal. In the early years of the Republic, however, the Petition Clause fell into desuetude because abolitionists engaged in what pro-slavery members of Congress characterized as “abusive” petitioning of the federal government to abolish the practice of human slavery. The Petition Clause has never recovered from this most odious legal and political banishment. This Article argues that federal courts should restore the relevance of the Petition Clause by using it to establish a qualified right to demonstrate in public forums within the sight and hearing of government officials and party leaders.

By uclalaw