Law and Changing Technology, and a “Natural Right to Fly”

Here’s a fun passage from Francis Holt, Law of Libel 38-39 (1812) [UPDATE: switched to citing the original 1812 edition rather than the 1816 second edition]; it’s an English treatise, but one that was highly influential in America in the early 1800s, and my sense (from the pretty substantial reading I’ve done on the subject) is that the views expressed here were pretty mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic (some paragraph breaks added):

The liberty of the press, therefore, properly understood, is the personal liberty of the writer to express his thoughts in the more improved way invented by human ingenuity in the form of the press. This definition, or rather description, will lead us not only to an accurate conception of the thing, but to the origin of those notions, and which some writers have deemed prejudices, entertained in favour of it in a popular constitution.

The press, it has been said, is the creature of human ingenuity, exerted in an improved, and therefore in a late progress of society; it is not, nor can be supposed, cotemporary with the state of nature; how, therefore, it is demanded, can the liberty of the press be a natural right? What do you intend therefore when you speak of the sacredness of this right, and employ terms which are only appropriate to our absolute and inalienable rights?

To this it may be answered, that the rights of nature, that is to say, of the free exercise of our faculties, must not be invidiously narrowed to any single form or shape. They extend to every shape, and to every instrument, in which, and by whose assistance, those faculties can be exercised. I have a right to walk, I have the same right to run, and, if by the exertion of ingenuity I could invent any way to fly, I have the same natural right to fly. The same character, therefore, of natural rights is conveyed to every right which is natural in its origin and principle, through all the possible modes and instruments of exercising and launching it into action and employment.

In this manner the liberty of the press may be regarded as a natural right, and in the language of our best lawyers, and the daily acceptance of the constitution, it is, under this notion, invested with a corresponding sacredness. Such is one of the reasons of the partiality of the English law and constitution towards this right.

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