Sedition first reared its head in American legislation in 1798. The Sedition Act (An Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States; ch. 74, 1 Stat. 596) made it a crime to publish "false, scandalous, and malicious writing" against the government or its officials. It was enacted July 14, 1798 by a Federalist controlled administration and Congress, with an expiration date of March 3, 1801 (the day before John Adams' presidential term was to end). The Democratic-Republican opposition, led by Vice President Thomas Jefferson, denounced the Act as contrary to the First and Tenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, claiming that it was designed to stifle criticism of the administration and infringed on the right of the states to enact and enforce laws against defamation.
The Sedition Act was never appealed to the Supreme Court for review, although individual Supreme Court Justices, sitting in circuit, heard many of the cases prosecuting opponents of the Federalists. For example, Justice Samuel Chase (a staunch Federalist) heard a case against David Brown in 1798. Brown led a group in Dedham, Massachusetts, in constructing a "liberty pole" with the words, "No Stamp Act, No Sedition Act, No Alien Bills, No Land Tax, downfall to the Tyrants of America; peace and retirement to the President [Federalist John Adams]; Long Live the Vice President [Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson]." Brown was tried in Salem, Massachusetts, and attempted to plead guilty, but Justice Chase would not permit him, wanting him to name those who supported him. Brown refused, was fined $480, and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. In total, twenty-five people, primarily prominent newspaper editors, were arrested pursuant to the Act. Of them, ten were convicted of sedition, often in trials before openly partisan Federalist judges.
Although the Sedition Act expired (the day before the end of President Adams' term) before its constitutionality could be directly challenged, subsequent Supreme Court opinions have assumed its unconstitutionality.
Federalists hoped the Sedition Act would stifle political opposition, but many Democratic-Republicans still criticized the Federalists and made the Act a key election issue in 1800. That election resulted in the "Revolution of 1800" -- a landslide victory by Thomas Jefferson and in Federalists at all levels of government being turned out of office. The attempt to muffle criticism also later contributed to the demise of the Federalist Party. Congress repeatedly apologized for, and voted compensation to victims of, the enforcement of the Sedition Act. Thomas Jefferson pardoned all of those who had been so convicted.
---Craig Evan Klafter