U.S. Circuit Court Justice Samuel Chase
This court document presents the case against Thomas Cooper, a lawyer and newspaper editor in Sunbury, Pennsylvania, who convicted of violating the Sedition Act in 1800. Cooper had published a broadside that was sharply critical of President Adams.
A U.S. Circuit Court jury
To discredit the views of Cooper and enforce Sedition Act legislation
The Sedition Act was later repealed when Thomas Jefferson won the presidency. Future iterations of similar legislation that restrained free speech would be struck down through the process of judicial review. Before this, however, speaking out in opposition to governmental policies could have serious legal repercussions—as seen in the case of United States v. Cooper.
United States v. Cooper
Gentlemen of the jury: When men are found rash enough to commit an offence such as the traverser is charged with, it becomes the duty of the government to take care that they should not pass with impunity. It is my duty to state to you the law on which this indictment is preferred, and the substance of the accusation and defence. Thomas Cooper, the traverser, stands charged with having published a false, scandalous and malicious libel against the president of the United States, in his official character as president. There is no civilized country that I know of, that does not punish such offences; and it is necessary to the peace and welfare of this country, that these offences should meet with their proper punishment, since ours is a government founded on the opinions and confidence of the people. The representatives and the president are chosen by the people. It is a government made by themselves; and their officers are chosen by themselves; and, therefore, if any improper law is enacted, the people have it in their power to obtain the repeal of such law, or even of the constitution itself, if found defective, since provision is made for its amendment. Our government, therefore, is really republican; the people are truly represented, since all power is derived from them. It is a government of representation and responsibility. All officers of the government are liable to be displaced or removed, or their duration in office limited by elections at fixed periods… All governments which I have ever read or heard of punish libels against themselves. If a man attempts to destroy the confidence of the people in their officers, their supreme magistrate, and their legislature, he effectually saps the foundation of the government. A republican government can only be destroyed in two ways: the introduction of luxury, or the licentiousness of the press. This latter is the more slow, but most sure and certain, means of bringing about the destruction of the government. The legislature of this country, knowing this maxim, has thought proper to pass a law to check this licentiousness of the press: by a clause in that law it is enacted. (Judge Chase here read the second section of the sedition law.) It must, therefore, be observed, gentlemen of the jury, that the intent must be plainly manifest. It is an important word in the law; for if there is no such intent to defame, &c., there is no offence created by that law. Thomas Cooper, then, stands indicted for having published a false, scandalous and malicious libel upon the president of the United States, with intent to defame the president, to bring him into contempt and disrepute, and to excite against him the hatred of the good people of the United States. This is the charge…