219 years ago, on July 14th, 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts, which states that it is a crime to write false or malicious statements about the United States government, became law. It violated the very core of Americans’ freedoms, by taking away their journalists’ freedom of speech and freedom of the press. If one wrote their opinion on a certain aspect of the US government, they would possibly be considered a criminal among the likes of thieves and murderers.
But how has America’s view of the press and media changed in over two centuries?
Let’s find out.
1800, Thomas Jefferson becomes President: The Alien and Sedition acts were put to rest because Jefferson believed they were wrong and did not like the fact that it limited the power of the Republican party. Writers were allowed to express their opinion without fear of the government coming after them. They could share with the world the things that coursed through their brains, the impactful stories that they so desperately wanted to tell. Their freedom of speech was granted again, and so was their love for writing.
1827, First Black Newspaper Published: In 1827, Samuel Cornish and John Russwurm founded Freedom’s Journal, the first African American owned and operated newspaper in the US. It eventually began circulating in 11 states, Canada, Haiti, and more. This newspaper and widespread following allowed for many African Americans to truly express their feelings and experiences with living in America and how being a different skin color from what was “normal” could impact their lives so much.
1861, New York City Newspapers Lawsuit: During the times of the Civil War, four New York City newspapers were accused of encouraging the confederate rebels with sympathy and agreement in their publications. This led to many federal prosecutions afterwards with claims of criticism against Lincoln administration and aiding Southern states. These events went on for quite some time, with a Maine based newspaper company’s building was set ablaze, and eventually ended with President Abraham Lincoln filing an executive order that made correspondence with an enemy illegal (and punishable by death).
Late 1800s, Women Allowed To Publish: In the late 19th century, women began their campaign to convince Congress and President Millard Filmore that they should be permitted to write and be published in newspapers just as men had always been allowed to do. The President was eventually persuaded by the New York Tribune’s Jane Grey Swisshelm to allow her to report on congressional news. More women entered the journalism scene after this, but most were expected to report on things like food and fashion. Nevertheless, this was a big accomplishment for women, who could not even vote at the time.
1917 and 1918, Back To Square One: Going off of Lincoln’s aforementioned executive order, the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918 were set into motion. These acts put restrictions on press publications during times of war, with the maximum punishment being 20 years in prison. Writers could not publish any negative or disloyal comments about the government, lest they want to be punished. America had suddenly time-travelled back to the 18th century, and these acts did not last long either. They were eventually repealed in 1921, with the support of newspaper companies around the country.
1931, Near v. Minnesota: The United States Supreme Court acknowledged in 1931, in the case of Near v. Minnesota, the freedom of the press by rejecting restraints that had been previously put on newspapers and publications. The state of Minnesota was even forced to repeal an unconstitutional law that targeted publishers of scandalous newspapers. Writers and publishers in Minnesota could fear no more of publishing risky articles and having their First Amendment rights violated.
1940s, Teen Magazines Appear: Around the time of the second World War, American teen classic magazines such as Seventeen and CosmoGirl began to come into the spotlight. Their demographic was mostly teenage girls, and began to grow wildly popular worldwide as their production increased. These publications encouraged young women to go into journalism, and they were a big influence on the adolescent female population.
1995, First Online Publication: In 1995, USA Today became the first newspaper in America to offer an online version of their newspaper. This stimulated many others to do the same thing, such as CNN, who established their website later that year. But sadly, transferring online did not help the purchasing of physical newspapers. The Internet was a free and more accessible alternative, so people ceased to buy copies of newspapers, and instead read their favorite stories online. Bankruptcy became readily apparent, and newspapers such as Rocky Mountain News and the Los Angeles Times suffered greatly. Unfortunately, only the strong could survive the transfer to online news.
Today: So where is the journalism world now?Teens are writing for magazines across the country and can get published early on in their life, breaking news online allows for quick and easy transfer of information to the general public to ensure safety, and more and more people are beginning to appreciate journalism for what it is. I’d say that since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, America has gone on an extremely long path to get to now. Women are published, people of all races and ethnicities are published, and adolescents are encouraged to write articles and become knowledgeable about the world around them. We’ve come a long way, and we are just getting started.