Seditious libel

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Sedition and seditious libel were criminal offences under English common law, and are still criminal offences in Canada. Sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that is deemed by the legal authority to tend toward insurrection against the established order: if the statement is in writing or some other permanent form it is seditious libel. Libel denotes a printed form of communication such as writing or drawing. [1]

Common law Law developed by judges

In law, common law is that body of law derived from judicial decisions of courts and similar tribunals. The defining characteristic of “common law” is that it arises as precedent. In cases where the parties disagree on what the law is, a common law court looks to past precedential decisions of relevant courts, and synthesizes the principles of those past cases as applicable to the current facts. If a similar dispute has been resolved in the past, the court is usually bound to follow the reasoning used in the prior decision. If, however, the court finds that the current dispute is fundamentally distinct from all previous cases, and legislative statutes are either silent or ambiguous on the question, judges have the authority and duty to resolve the issue. The court states an opinion that gives reasons for the decision, and those reasons agglomerate with past decisions as precedent to bind future judges and litigants. Common law, as the body of law made by judges, stands in contrast to and on equal footing with statutes which are adopted through the legislative process, and regulations which are promulgated by the executive branch. Stare decisis, the principle that cases should be decided according to consistent principled rules so that similar facts will yield similar results, lies at the heart of all common law systems.

Sedition is overt conduct, such as speech and organization, that tends toward insurrection against the established order. Sedition often includes subversion of a constitution and incitement of discontent towards, or resistance against established authority. Sedition may include any commotion, though not aimed at direct and open violence against the laws. Seditious words in writing are seditious libel. A seditionist is one who engages in or promotes the interest of sedition.


American scholar Leonard W. Levy argues that seditious libel "has always been an accordion-like concept, expandable or contractible at the whim of judges". [2]

Leonard Williams Levy was an American historian, the Andrew W. Mellon All-Claremont Professor of Humanities and Chairman of the Graduate Faculty of History at Claremont Graduate School, California, who specialized in the history of basic American Constitutional freedoms. He was born in Toronto, Ontario, and educated at Columbia University, where his mentor for the Ph.D. degree was Henry Steele Commager.

England, Wales and Northern Ireland

Under the common law of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a statement was seditious under the common law if it brought into "hatred or contempt" either the Queen or her heirs, the government and constitution, either House of Parliament, or the administration of justice; or if it incited people to attempt to change any matter of Church or state established by law (except by lawful means); or if it promoted discontent among or hostility between British subjects. A person was only guilty of the offence if they had printed words or images and intend any of the above outcomes. Proving that the statement is true was not a defence. The common law offence was punishable in the UK with life imprisonment.[ citation needed ]

Parliament of the United Kingdom supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom

The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly known internationally as the UK Parliament, British Parliament, or Westminster Parliament, and domestically simply as Parliament, is the supreme legislative body of the United Kingdom, the Crown dependencies and the British Overseas Territories. It alone possesses legislative supremacy and thereby ultimate power over all other political bodies in the UK and the overseas territories. Parliament is bicameral but has three parts, consisting of the Sovereign, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. The two houses meet in the Palace of Westminster in the City of Westminster, one of the inner boroughs of the capital city, London.

Church of England Anglican church in England, by law established

The Church of England is the established church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the most senior cleric, although the monarch is the supreme governor. The Church of England is also the mother church of the international Anglican Communion. It traces its history to the Christian church recorded as existing in the Roman province of Britain by the third century, and to the 6th-century Gregorian mission to Kent led by Augustine of Canterbury.

Parliament abolished the offence of sedition and seditious libel in 2009. [3] However, there continue to be similar offences in other statutes, such as the Terrorism Act 2000, which criminalises threats of action which are designed to "influence the government" or "to intimidate the public or a section of the public" for "the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause". [4]

Terrorism Act 2000

The Terrorism Act 2000 (c.11) is the first of a number of general Terrorism Acts passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It superseded and repealed the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1989 and the Northern Ireland Act 1996. It also replaced parts of the Criminal Justice Act 1998. The powers it provides the police have been controversial, leading to noted cases of alleged abuse, and to legal challenges in British and European courts. The stop-and-search powers under section 44 of the Act have been ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights.


In Canada, seditious offences are defined by sections 59 to 61 of the Criminal Code. A seditious offence can be punished by imprisonment up to a maximum term of 14 years. [5] The concept of a "seditious intention" is defined in part as follows:

<i>Criminal Code</i> (Canada)

The Criminal Code is a law that codifies most criminal offences and procedures in Canada. Its official long title is "An Act respecting the criminal law". Section 91(27) of the Constitution Act, 1867 establishes the sole jurisdiction of Parliament over criminal law in Canada.

59(4) Without limiting the generality of the meaning of the expression "seditious intention", every one shall be presumed to have a seditious intention who

  • (a) teaches or advocates, or
  • (b) publishes or circulates any writing that advocates,

the use, without the authority of law, of force as a means of accomplishing a governmental change within Canada. [6]

However, the breadth of this section is reduced by s 60, which provides "seditious intention" does not include communications made in good faith to criticise measures taken by the government, to point out errors or defects in government, or to point out matters that tend to produce ill-will between Canadians. [7]

Seditious speech in the United States

Seditious speech is speech directed at the overthrow of government. It includes speech attacking basic institutions of government, including particular governmental leaders. [8] Its criminalization dates back at least as far as the Alien and Sedition Act.

According to John Cohan, "A delicate line can be crossed, whereby lawful criticism of government may become seditious speech, where associating with others in robust criticism of government may become subversive activities punishable by law". [9] The Brandenburg v. Ohio U.S. Supreme Court decision maintains that seditious speech—including speech that constitutes an incitement to violence—is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution as long as it does not indicate an "imminent" threat. [10]

During World War II, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressured Francis Biddle to prosecute seditionists, but Biddle declined, believing it to be unwise. [11] Today's anti-war activists are not prosecuted for seditious speech. [12]


The crime of seditious libel was defined and established in England during the 1606 case De Libellis Famosis by the Star Chamber. The case defined seditious libel as criticism of public persons, the government, or King. [13]

The phrase "seditious libel" and "blasphemous libel" were used interchangeably at that time, because of the strong unions between church and state. Blasphemy was later made a separate offence, and finally abolished with the passing of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. Sedition and seditious libel were abolished by section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. [3] Sedition by an alien is still an offence under the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919. [14]

The United States' Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 broke with the common law precedent of the time, in that it allowed for truth as a defense, though judges were not consistent in their rulings.

John Peter Zenger was arrested and imprisoned for seditious libel in 1734 after his newspaper criticized the colonial governor of New York. Zenger spent nearly 10 months in jail before being acquitted by a jury in August 1735. [15] One hundred years later, Nova Scotia's Joseph Howe also won a jury acquittal on a charge of seditious libel after his newspaper printed allegations that local politicians and police were stealing from the people. [16]

Having severely censured the actions of the government in print with reference to the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, Sir Francis Burdett was prosecuted at Leicester assizes, fined £1,000, and committed to prison by Best, J. for three months for the crime of "composing, writing, and publishing a seditious libel" with explanation:

My opinion of the liberty of the press is that every man ought to be permitted to instruct his fellow subjects; that every man may fearlessly advance any new doctrines, provided he does so with proper respect to the religion and government of the country; that he may point out errors in the measures of public men; but he must not impute criminal conduct to them. The liberty of the press cannot be carried to this extent without violating another equally sacred right; namely, the right of character. This right can only be attacked in a court of justice, where the party attacked has a fair opportunity of defending himself. [17] [18]

See also

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John Peter Zenger American printer

John Peter Zenger (October 26, 1697 – July 28, 1746) was an American printer and journalist in New York City. Zenger printed The New York Weekly Journal. He was accused of libel in 1734 by William Cosby, the royal governor of New York, but the jury acquitted Zenger, who became a symbol for freedom of the press.

Sedition Act of 1918 Act of United States Congress

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Blasphemous libel was originally an offence under the common law of England. Today, it is an offence under the common law of Northern Ireland, but has been abolished in England and Wales, and repealed in Canada and New Zealand. It consists of the publication of material which exposes the Christian religion to scurrility, vilification, ridicule, and contempt, with material that must have the tendency to shock and outrage the feelings of Christians. It is a form of criminal libel.

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Sedition Act (Singapore) Law of Singapore

The Sedition Act is a Singaporean statute law which prohibits seditious acts and speech; and the printing, publication, sale, distribution, reproduction and importation of seditious publications. The essential ingredient of any offence under the Act is the finding of a "seditious tendency", and the intention of the offender is irrelevant. The Act also lists several examples of what is not a seditious tendency, and provides defences for accused persons in a limited number of situations.

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Defamatory libel was originally an offence under the common law of England. It has been established in England and Wales and Northern Ireland. It was or is a form of criminal libel, a term with which it is synonymous.

The Sedition Act 1948 in Malaysia is a law prohibiting discourse deemed as seditious. The act was originally enacted by the colonial authorities of British Malaya in 1948. The act criminalises speech with "seditious tendency", including that which would "bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against" the government or engender "feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races". The meaning of "seditious tendency" is defined in section 3 of the Sedition Act 1948 and in substance it is similar to the English common law definition of sedition, with modifications to suit local circumstances. The Malaysian definition includes the questioning of certain portions of the Constitution of Malaysia, namely those pertaining to the Malaysian social contract, such as Article 153, which deals with special rights for the bumiputra.

The origins of the United States' defamation laws pre-date the American Revolution; one influential case in 1734 involved John Peter Zenger and established precedent that "The Truth" is an absolute defense against charges of libel. Though the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect freedom of the press, for most of the history of the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court failed to use it to rule on libel cases. This left libel laws, based upon the traditional "Common Law" of defamation inherited from the English legal system, mixed across the states. The 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, however, radically changed the nature of libel law in the United States by establishing that public officials could win a suit for libel only when they could prove the media outlet in question knew either that the information was wholly and patently false or that it was published "with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not". Later Supreme Court cases barred strict liability for libel and forbid libel claims for statements that are so ridiculous as to be patently false. Recent cases have added precedent on defamation law and the Internet.

Crimes (Repeal of Seditious Offences) Amendment Act 2007

The Crimes Amendment Act 2007 is an Act of Parliament passed in New Zealand in 2007. It removed the crime of sedition from the New Zealand statute book.

Coroners and Justice Act 2009

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In the state of Ireland, "publication or utterance of blasphemous matter", defamatory of any religion, is criminalised by a 2009 statute passed to enforce a requirement of the 1937 Constitution. The constitutional requirement was deleted in 2018 after a referendum and the Fine Gael-led government plans to repeal the 2009 law, which was intended to be "virtually impossible" to enforce, and under which no prosecution has ever been made. The common law offence of blasphemous libel, applicable only to Christianity and last prosecuted in 1855, was believed to fulfil the constitutional requirement until a 1999 ruling that it was incompatible with the constitution's guarantee of religious equality. The 2009 statute filled the lacuna but increased controversy, with proponents of freedom of speech and freedom of religion arguing for amending the constitution.

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<i>The New York Weekly Journal</i>

The New York Weekly Journal was a weekly journal, printed by John Peter Zenger, from November 5, 1733 to March 18, 1751. It was the second journal in New York City and the only one that criticized New York Royal governor William Cosby, for which reason the journal was burned in its first year and John Zenger was put in prison. Zenger was released without charges, this being one of the earliest cases where a fight for the freedom of press led to a victory in America.


  1. L.L. Edwards, J.S. Edwards, P. K. Wells, Tort Law for Legal Assistants, Cengage Learning, 2008, p. 390. "Libel refers to written defamatory statements; slander refers to oral statements. Libel encompasses communications occurring in 'physical form'... defamatory statements on records and computer tapes are considered libel..."
  2. Levy, Leonard W. (1985) Emergence of a Free Press. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 8.
  3. 1 2 Coroners and Justice Act 2009, UK 2009, c 25, s 73.
  4. Terrorism Act 2000, UK 2000 c. 11, s. 1.
  5. Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 61.
  6. Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 59(4).
  7. Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46, s 60.
  8. Levinson, Sanford (2004–2005), Pedagogy of the First Amendment: Why Teaching about Freedom of Speech Raises Unique (and Perhaps Insurmountable) Problems for Conscientious Teachers and Their Students, The, 52, UCLA L. Rev., p. 1359
  9. Cohan, John Alan (2003), Seditious Conspiracy, the Smith Act, and Prosecution for Religious Speech Advocating the Violent Overthrow of Government, 17, St. John's J. Legal Comment, p. 199
  10. Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969)
  11. G. R. Stone (2004), Free speech in World War II:" When are you going to indict the seditionists?" (PDF), International Journal of Constitutional Law
  12. Patriotic Dissent; Herman, Susan N., 45, Washburn L.J., 2005–2006, p. 21
  13. American Bar Association: Students in Action: "Cultures, Courts, and the U.S. Constitution".
  14. Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act 1919, UK 1919, c 92, s 3.
  15. Levy, pp. 38–45.
  16. Kesterton, W.H. (1967) A History of Journalism in Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Limited, pp. 21–23.
  17. Sources of English Constitutional History, Stephenson & Marcham.
  18. Reports of State Trials, New Series, I, 49, 118 f.