The Original Meaning of “the Freedom of the Press” and Non-Political Speech

I occasionally hear people argue that the freedom of the press was originally understood as extending only to publications on political topics. I don’t think that’s right. The freedom of the press was certainly understood as providing some protection for political publication, though there was disagreement about what limitations were permitted, and even whether the freedom extended to criminal punishments or only applied to “prior restraints” (such as requirements of a license to print). But it was also understood as providing protection at least for speech about science and religion. For instance,

  1. The Continental Congress’s 1774 Letter to the Inhabitants of Quebec discussed the importance of the freedom of the press as consisting in part of “the advancement of truth, science, morality, and arts,” as well as of politics.
  2. The French philosopher Helvetius, who was well known to the Framing generation — see, e.g., A Columbian Patriot [Mercy Otis Warren], Observations on the New Constitution, And on the Federal And State Conventions 2 (Boston, n. pub. 1788) (quoting Helvetius); Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Colonel William Duane (Sept. 16, 1810) (same) — in 5 The Writings of Thomas Jefferson 538, 539 (H.A. Washington ed., Washington, Taylor & Maury 1853), similarly wrote that “[i]t is to contradiction, and consequently to the liberty of the press, that physics owes its improvements. Had this liberty never subsisted, how many errors, consecrated by time, would be cited as incontestible axioms! What is here said of physics is applicable to morality and politics.”
  3. Justice Iredell expressed the same view in a 1799 grand jury charge: “The liberty of the press … has converted barbarous nations into civilized ones — taught science to rear its head — enlarged the capacity — increased the comforts of private life — and, leading the banners of freedom, has extended her sway where her very name was unknown.” Iredell thought this liberty did not cover seditious writings, but he did see it as covering scientific ones.
  4. Likewise, James Madison’s 1799 Address of the General Assembly to the People of the Commonwealth of Virginia stated — in the middle of the discussion of the “liberty … of the press” — that “it is to the press mankind are indebted for having dispelled the clouds which long encompassed religion, for disclosing her genuine lustre, and disseminating her salutary doctrines.”

Naturally, the hot free press debates in America and England of the 1700s focused chiefly on publications about politics, because those were the ones the government most often tried to suppress. But “the liberty of the press” (and its synonym “the freedom of the press”) were seen as extending to scientific and religious publications as well.

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