The freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental rights we possess.  This basic natural right is not contingent upon laws or social traditions.  Essentially, it is nothing short of inalienable and universal between all peoples at all times.  However, in practice, it seldom observed as such.  From the early Tolerance Act of 1689 to current “Free Speech Zones” across American universities, men have tried to quell this freedom.

Our Constitutional framers recognized the long tradition of English common law when it came to speech rights; common law labeled a speech right as no prior restraint – prosecution could come only after libel speech was proved.  That is why the First Amendment protects against Congress “abridging (lessening) the freedom of speech.”

Nonetheless, individuals exercising this natural right have been persecuted by the political/power elite throughout history.

Most notably, in post-revolution America, was the Sedition Act of 1798. Passed by Congress and signed by Pres. John Adams, the act outlawed criticism of the federal government. Americans were forbidden to “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against their government. Yet, the validity of said utterances was seldom examined.  John Adams’s first victim was Democratic-Republican Congressman Matthew Lyon – a fiery Irish immigrant who, at the time, represented Vermont.  He was never know to mince words – in a published letter he wrote that President Adams had “a continual grasp for power [and] unbounded thirst for ridiculous pomp, foolish adulation and selfish avarice“ and that Adams would eliminate people from office whom he disagreed, proclaiming that “men of real merit [are] daily turned out of office for no cause other than independence of sentiment.”

In the official case file, United States vs. Matthew Lyon, the author wrote that Lyon was;

being a malicious and seditious person, and of a depraved mind and wicked and diabolical disposition, and deceitfully, wickedly and maliciously contrived to defame the Government of the United States, and with intent to design to defame the said Government of the United States, and John Adams, the President into contempt and disrepute; and with intent and design to excite, against the said Government and President the hatred of the good people of the United States, and to stir up sedition in the United States

Notwithstanding the slander embedded in the case file, Lyon was found guilty for “libel” speech in his bi-weekly pamphlet The Scourge of Aristocracy and Repository of Important Political Truth; sentenced to four months in prison and fined $1,000 (approximately $18,000 today). His fine was paid in large part by supporters and while in prison he continued to run for office. The voters of Vermont rallied around not only Lyon, but an opposition to the perverse law; Lyon ultimately won by a landslide victory.

This overwhelming support represented a loud message that citizens would not stand for this usurpation. Lyon, walking out of prison, proclaimed “I am on my way to Philadelphia”  and was accompanied by a demonstration of supporters with the American flag at the vanguard.  This popular sentiment carried on to the famous ousting of the Federalist Party in the election of 1800. Matthew Lyon was not the last to be victimized by this tyranny. Congress continues to disregard the First Amendment and has passed a slew of free speech damping orders such as the Espionage Act of 1917, Community Decency Act of 1996, and most recently the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act 2011.  All of which have or could potentially be used to harass citizens for exercising their natural right of free speech.


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