The Sedition Act and the First Amendment

A commenter writes — apparently arguing in favor of the view that the First Amendment was originally understood as providing only narrow protection — that “The same [Congress] that [passed the First Amendment] passed the sedition act.”

This turns out not to be so in any useful way (other than the obvious point that the same legal body, the Congress, sent the Bill of Rights to the states and then, nine years later, enacted the Sedition Act). To quote an interesting statistic from David A. Anderson, The Origins of the Press Clause, 30 UCLA L. Rev. 455 (1983):

Of the ninety-five senators and representatives who served in the First Congress, only eighteen remained when the Sedition Act was enacted in July 1798, and of those only ten voted “aye” [with four voting “nay” and four not voting].

The debates about the Sedition Act do show, I think, that there was much unsettled about what “the freedom of speech” and “the freedom … of the press” meant during that era. As with many ideas, people may have broadly endorsed the abstraction but had very different views of what that abstraction actually meant. But whatever one might say about those debates, one should not assume that those who voted for the Sedition Act in 1798 — or those who voted against it, the vote being 18-6 in the Senate and 44-41 in the House — were the same people as those who voted for the First Amendment in 1789.