’s Unfair Prosecution Essay, Research Paper
Freedom of the Press: Matthew Lyon?s Unfair Prosecution
Freedom is a right guaranteed to us by the Constitution. Matthew Lyon was unfairly
prosecuted under the Sedition Act and should have been allowed to publish his
opinions. The First Amendment guarantees the rights to freedom of speech and the
press. Both of these rights of Matthew Lyon were infringed upon when he was
prosecuted under the Sedition Act. It has long been thought that criticism is an
important part of democracy (Ingelhart). Criticism is necessary and Matthew Lyon did
it which helped democracy. The sedition act was politically motivated. All it was
meant to do was to suppress the Republicans (Boorstin 167). Matthew Lyon should
have been permitted to publish his opinions about the government and its leaders for
the following reasons: the First Amendment guarantees him this right, criticism is a
necessary part of democracy, and the Sedition Act was politically motivated.
Matthew Lyon is guaranteed the right to say what he wishes by the first amendment.
The First Amendment says that ?Congress shall make no law? abridging the freedom
of speech, or the press? (Const.). This means that the Sedition Act was illegal as it
said that anyone ?publishing false, scandalous, or malicious writings against the
President, Congress, or the government of the United States? would be subject to many
legal ramifications (qtd. in Boorstin 167). Matthew Lyon thus should have been
protected and not punished for his writings against Adams, no matter what the
circumstances were. As James Madison said:
The Sedition Act was unconstitutional. ? The First Amendment was intended to
supersede the common-law on speech and press. Freedom guaranteed by the amendment
was absolute as far as the federal government was concerned because it could not be
abridged by any United States Authority (qtd. in Ingelhart).
This quote reveals Madison?s views on the Sedition Act. He clearly thought that it was
unconstitutional and violated the First Amendment. Both Jefferson and Madison
thought that the act was a ?clear violation of the second amendment? (qtd. in James
Madison). This led to the writing of the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions (James
Madison; Boorstin 169). I think it means a great deal that two of the founding fathers
denied the constitutionality of the act and sought to challenge it. Matthew Lyon should
have been permitted to publish his opinions because what he was doing was
completely legal under the ultimate law, the Constitution. The act also severely limited
the freedom of the press (Boorstin 169). Thomas Jefferson said long before the sedition
acts that ?Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited
without being lost? (qtd. in Ingelhart). This quote was written in 1786, long before the
Sedition Act was enacted. It shows that Jefferson was a firm believer in the freedom of
the press which was infringed upon by the Sedition Act. Matthew Lyon was only
exercising these rights when he wrote his letter in the Vermont Gazette. Clearly, the
Sedition Act should have been repealed on the basis that it was unconstitutional and
Matthew Lyon thus should not have been imprisoned.
Criticism is needed to form new ideas and get rid of outdated or infective ones.
Matthew Lyon?s criticism should thus have been acceptable. Criticism is an essential
part of democracy. As Calvin Coolidge said in 1925, ?It is the ferment of ideas, the
clash of disagreeing judgments, the privilege of the individual to develop his own
thought and shape his own character which makes progress possible? (qtd. in.
Ingelhart). Without criticism, the same antiquated ideas will prevail forever. The
?ferment of ideas? is something needed to allow democracy to grow and work. It has
been argued that the circumstances surrounding the time may have justified the Sedition
Act (Boorstin 167; James Madison; Peterson 43). However, according to London B.
Johnson, ?Opinion and protest are the life breath of democracy – even when it blows
heavy? (emphasis added) (qtd. in Ingelhart). I think that this quote is especially fitting
and it clearly speaks that Lyon?s writings should be allowed, no matter what events
were taking place in the country. Also, the Sedition Act did a bad job of defining what
sedition was (Ritchie 12). Benjamin Franklin Bache, thought ?to laugh at the cut of a
coat of a member of Congress will soon be treason? (qtd. in Ritchie 12). The act left
the courts to decide what was sedition and what was not (Boorstin 168). The idea that
criticism is a key part of democracy is another of the reasons why Matthew Lyon?s
opinions should have been allowed to be published.
The third and final reason that Matthew Lyon should have been able to publish his
writings is that the Sedition Act was politically motivated. The Federalists took
advantage of the situation with France to push the laws past Congress. The idea of the
acts was to stop the numbers of new immigrants who voted Republican. It also tried to
stop the Republican press(Boorstin 167). Matthew Lyon was thus a victim of ?partisan
politics? and should have not been prosecuted for his opinions. Of the twenty-five
people that were prosecuted under the act, all were Republicans (Peterson 43). This
proves that the acts were obviously against the Republicans and thus against Matthew
Lyon who was a Republican. Many Republicans thought that the point of the Sedition
Act was to destroy them under the guise of protecting the public (Peterson 43). The
Alien Acts, which were passed along with the Sedition Act, were also against the
Republican editors, many of whom were born overseas (Ritchie 12). Matthew Lyon
came under attack because he was a Republican, not because of his seditious opinions.
The Sedition Act was a politically motivated attack on the Republicans by the
Federalists and was an unfair persecution of Matthew Lyon.
Matthew Lyon?s rights were infringed upon in many ways when he was prosecuted
under the Sedition Act. He should have been allowed to say whatever he wanted to say.
I think that the fact that an act such as the Sedition Act could be passed speaks against
the idea that the Constitution is the ultimate protector of our rights. If the Congress is
allowed to pass laws which defy the document on which our country was based, what
do we have left?
Boorstin, Daniel J. and Brooks Mather Kelly. A History of The United States.
Nedham, MA: Hall, 1992.
Ingelhart, Louis E. Ed. Famous quotes on the First Amendment. Online. Internet.
18 Dec. 1996. Available: http://w3.trib.com/FACT/1st.quotes.html.
James Madison on the Sedition Acts: Context. Online. Internet. 18 Dec. 1996.
Peterson, Merril D. ?Alien and Sedition Acts.? Encyclopedia of the American
Constitution. New York: Macmillan 1986.
Ritchie, Donald A. The Young Oxford to the Companion to the C