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First Amendment Timeline

1798Editors Imprisoned Under Alien And Sedition Acts

A U.S. peace treaty with Britain angers France, which strikes back by seizing U.S. ships. On the verge of war, the Federalist-controlled Congress enacts four bills collectively known as the Alien and Sedition Acts to silence pro-French sentiment in the U.S. These acts make it a crime to criticize the federal government and its policies. Under this law, critical newspaper publishers are convicted and imprisoned. In 1800, the Democratic-Republicans win the presidency and majorities in Congress. The new majority lets the Sedition Act expire, and President Thomas Jefferson pardons all those who had been convicted under it.

1836Efforts To Stifle Debate About Slavery Unsuccessful

As abolitionists develop the tactic of submitting many antislavery petitions to Congress, proslavery members of the U.S. House of Representatives adopt “gag” rules that bar such petitions from being introduced and debated. In 1844, former President John Quincy Adams, then a representative from Massachusetts, leads the effort to repeal these rules.

1964Supreme Court Places Limits On Libel

L.B. Sullivan a Montgomery, Ala., city commissioner, sues the New York Times for libel after it publishes a full-page advertisement criticizing anti–civil rights activities in Montgomery. Although the Alabama Supreme Court rules against the newspaper, the Supreme Court reverses that judgment in New York Times v. Sullivan.

The Supreme Court rules that public officials cannot sue for libel unless they prove that a statement was known to be false and made with “actual malice,” meaning that it was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

2014Court Rejects Overall Political Donation Limit

The U.S. Supreme Court rules, 5-4, in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that individuals may donate to as many federal political candidates, parties and committees as they wish in a two-year election cycle. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. says that the overall cap violated the First Amendment’s free speech right. “There is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders,” he writes in the majority opinion. Justice Stephen G. Breyer, in his dissent, says that the decision will allow “a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign.”

2015Town Ordinance On Signs Struck Down

In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously strikes down a town law that treated a church’s signs differently from other signs, such as political ads. Unlike other signs, the church signs were limited in size and allowed to be in place for only a certain number of house. The majority opinion says that the town ordinance was based on the content of the sign’s message, which violates the First Amendment’s free speech right.