“Even before signing this act, Adams had Ben Franklin’s grandson, editor of a Republican newspaper, arrested on libel charges for writing accusations of incompetence against George Washington and of nepotism against Adams himself,” recalls Keystone College’s Brauer.
The editor died in prison, awaiting trial.
The Sedition Act expired the day before Adams’ presidency ended; his successor, Thomas Jefferson, pardoned those convicted under the act.
Not until 1964, in the case of New York Times v. Sullivan, did the U.S. Supreme Court resolve the constitutional issues surrounding press freedom and public figures. That case established the very high burden-of-proof of “actual malice” for libel and defamation of those in the public eye.
Late last month, the White House press office threatened to ban a San Francisco Chronicle reporter from White House pool reporting after she used a cell phone to record protesters heckling President Obama at a fund-raiser.
“The administration must simply get used to the idea that some media outlets are going to be critical, and that is healthy in a democracy,” says Brauer.
John Adams did not learn that lesson. And it is no coincidence that he was the first one-term president and that his laws, such as the Sedition Act, were the death knell of his Federalist Party.
Days before Joe Biden was sworn into office in 2009, he promised to be more open than his predecessor, Dick Cheney.
Yet, more often than not, his official schedule lists meeting as “closed press” or shows no public events as being scheduled.
You may not care what any vice president does, and you may not care for the press, either – but you should care deeply about the fundamental right and obligation of the press to cover the vice president and the president.
The comings and goings of Vice President Biden should not occur in an unobserved world that, to paraphrase Biden himself, is a big bleeping deal.
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