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Thomas Jefferson's Necessary Press



Though an anti-Federalist, Leonard Levy points out that during the presidency of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson never protested against the substantive law of seditious libel, not even during the later Sedition Act controversy. He directed his protests against national as opposed to state prosecution for verbal crimes.

His draft constitution for Virginia in 1783 proposed that the press "shall be subject to no other restraint that libelness to legal prosecution for false facts printed and published."

Thomas Jefferson would later prosecute Federalist Thomas Jefferson>editors under this legislation, though he would allow 
the legislation to expire during his administration.  
Jefferson's solution for correcting opposing newspapers 
was predictable for the party press era. ‘The restraints 
provided by the laws of the states are sufficient for 
this if applied . . . I have long thought that a few 
prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a 
wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the 
presses.
Jefferson was a great supporter of the press and recognized it as necessary for a democracy to properly function. He recognized that the press was a check the people had over the government which they had appointed. Heavily criticized by the press during his life, Jefferson maintained this position. It was only abuses of the press that he recognized might restore integrity to the profession.

This integrity or responsibility would place Jefferson closer to John Milton's idea of a free market place of ideas that served the common good, than to John Stuart Mill's or Oliver Wendell Holmes later interpretations or modifications.

One credited as being in the Jeffersonian tradition, John Nicholas of Virginia, denied that there could be any satisfactory way of distinguishing liberty from licentiousness without abridging liberty itself; he rejected any distinctions based on truth versus falsehood. Offensive criticism of the government would invariably be deemed false. "Printers as a result would not only refrain from publishing anything of the least questionable nature, but they would be afraid of publishing the truth, as, though true, it might not always be in their power to establish the truth to the satisfaction of a court of justices."

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