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Lying or spreading “false news” was treated as a crime in colonial Massachusetts.  In 1645 the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law which stated:

“Whereas truth in words as well as in actions is required of all men, especially of Christians, who are the professed of the God of Truth; and whereas all lying is contrary to truth, and some sort of lies are not only sinful, (as all lies are) but pernicious to the publick weal, and injurious to particular persons:

It is therefore ordered by this court and authority thereof, that every person of the age of discretion (which is accounted fourteen years) who shall wittingly and willingly make, or publish any lie, which may be pernicious to the publick weal, or tending to the damage or injury of any particular person, or with the intent to deceive and abuse the people with false news and reports, … such person shall be fined for the first offense ten shillings, or if the party be unable to pay the same, then to be set in the stocks… in some open place, not exceeding two hours.

For the second offense in that kind, whereof any shall be legally convicted, shall pay the sum of twenty shillings, or be whipped upon the naked body, not exceeding ten stripes.

And for the third offense forty shillings, or if the party be unable to pay, then to be whipped with more stripes, not exceeding fifteen. “

For a fourth offense, the punishment was 10 shillings more than formerly, or if unable to pay, then 5-6 more stripes than formerly, not exceeding 40.

[Bold letters are  mine.]

This law was included in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first printed compilation of statutes The Book of the General Lawes and Libertyes Concerning the Inhabitants of Massachusetts (1648).

Facsimiles of this book are owned by the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries.

One can also read selections of this book online at Le Projet Albion/Puritan Studies on the Web/Primary Sources.  (see # 35)

 

The Puritan-dominated Colony clearly hoped to instill Christian values in the community, and protect the vulnerable young colony from danger, by threatening to punish all lying, not only those lies that damaged  a particular individual, but also any lies that were simply “pernicious to the publick weal”.

(Plymouth Colony passed its own law against spreading false news in 1653, with very similar wording; Virginia followed in 1661; Maryland in 1671; New York in 1664; Pennsylvania in 1682; and South Carolina in 1691.)

If someone lied about a particular individual, that individual could sue for slander, which was often done; but the liar could also face criminal sanctions, especially if the person lied about an important government or church official.  This had been typical in English common law for centuries.  The impetus was to protect the reputations of important men, because the stability of the government depended upon their good relations with each other (and with the crown) and the nation’s trust in their integrity.  That was, in essence, the old conception of “false news”.

The new conception of “false news”, which arose in the seventeenth century, had to do with events rather than particular people.  If one lied about a supposed event, especially in a way that endangered the public good, one could face the criminal charge of lying and spreading “false news and reports”.

Lying often accompanies other crimes, so it is sometimes difficult to separate the crime of lying from other charges an individual might face simultaneously, as for example, when someone were charged with both lying and theft, lying and blasphemy, or lying in order to entrap a young woman so as to pander her.

EXAMPLES of people in colonial Massachusetts convicted and punished for lying alone include the following.

In 1678, Nicholas Shapleigh and Richard Naggs, mariners on a ship, were fined 10 shillings apiece for their  “pernicious lie to ye  country”, for claiming that there was French contraband and brandy on a ship, and then denying their lie in court, saying it was just “the slip of the pen”.  In this apparently civil case, the plaintiff was their captain Andrew Craty; they agreed to give him their wages as libel, so he withdrew his case.  But the court fined them for lying to the court about it.

In 1682, James Fuller of Springfield claimed that he had prayed to the Devil for help, and was familiar with the Devil on several occasions; in court he admitted that he had lied about this; he was found not guilty by a jury for witchcraft, but the Court, “considering his wicked and pernicious willful lying and continuance in it till now putting the country to so great a charge” sentenced him to be whipped 30 stripes and fined 5 pounds.

In 1691, Josiah Littlefield (bound over to the General Court in Boston from the County Court of Salem)  was convicted of lying for reporting that he knew men who had had sold powder and shot to the Indians; he denied it in court; he was fined 10 shillings and fees of Court.

[Records of the Court of Assistants of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay 1630-1692, (1901). Vol 1, p. 147, 228, & 356 respectively.]

 

Today, the Massachusetts General Laws have no proscription against spreading false news, except as it relates to libel and slander of particular individuals.  (Slander is oral defamation, libel is written.)

For further information, including laws, regulations, case law, and online and print resources, see our web page “Massachusetts Law about Defamation”.

 

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