This article presents a new account of the development of the law of seditious libel from the late sixteenth century to the early eighteenth. It also outlines a new version of the relationship between the government and the press during that period. The article argues that it was the gradual erosion, during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of the legal foundations of the government's policies toward the press that eventually made necessary a new policy based on the law of libel. In the midsixteenth century, the Crown possessed a wide variety of means for dealing with the printed press, including the laws of treason, Scandalum Magnatum, heresy, and licensing. Legal restraints and public opinion, however, gradually forced the Crown to abandon one method after another until in the late seventeenth century it had great difficulty finding a law with which it could defend itself against printed criticism. The sole remaining law that the Crown could rely upon for prosecuting the printed press was one that during the previous century had not been considered suitable for that purpose. It was, however, the Crown's only alternative, and, after doctrinal adjustments, it became the chief means of prosecuting the printed press in the eighteenth century. This was the law of seditious libel.
Philip A. Hamburger,
The Development of the Law of Seditious Libel and the Control of the Press,
Stan. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/656