Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VI: THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF DISCUSSION - Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (LF ed.)
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Chapter VI: THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF DISCUSSION - Albert Venn Dicey, Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution (LF ed.) 
Introduction to the Study of the Law of the Constitution, ed. Roger E. Michener (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1982).
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THE RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF DISCUSSION
The Declaration of the Rights of Man1 and the French Constitution of 1791 proclaim freedom of discussion and the liberty of the press in terms which are still cited in text-book2 as embodying maxims of French jurisprudence.
Principles laid down in foreign constitution La libre communication des pensées et des opinions est un des droits les plus précieux de I'homme; tout citoyen peut done parler, écrire, imprimer librement, sauf à répondre de l'abus de cette liberté dans les cas déterminés par la loi.”3
La constitution garantit, comme droit naturel et civil … la libreté à tout homme de parler, d'écrire, d'imprimer et publier ses pensées, sans que ses écrits puissent être soumis à aucune censure ou inspection avant leur publication.4
Belgian law, again, treats the liberty of the press as a fundamental article of the constitution.
Art. 18. La pressed est libre; la censure ne pourra jamais être établie: il ne peut être exigé de cautionnement des écrivains, éditeurs ou imprimeurs.
Lorsque l'auteur est connu et domicilié en Belgique, l'éditeurs, l'imprimeur ou le distributeur ne peut être poursuivi.5
illegible Both the revolutionists of France and the constitutionalists of Belgium borrowed their ideas about freedom of opinion and the liberty of the press from England, and most persons form such loose notions as to English law that the idea prevails in England itself that the right to the free expression of opinion, and especially that form of it which is known as the “liberty of the press,” are fundamental doctrines of the law of England in the same sense in which they were part of the ephemeral constitution of 1791 and still are embodied in the articles of the existing Belgian constitution; and, further, that our Courts recognise the right of every man to say and write what he pleases, espedally on social, political, or religious topics, without fear of legal penalties. Yet this notion, justified though it be, to a certain extent, by the habits of modem English life, is essentially false, and conceals from students the real attitude of English law towards what is called “freedom of thought,” and is more accurately described as the “fight to the free expression of opinion.” As every lawyer knows, the phrases “freedom of discussion” or “liberty of the press” are rarely found in any part of the statute-book nor among the maxims of the common law.6 As terms of art they are indeed quite unknown to our Courts. At no time has there in England been any proclamation of the right to liberty of thought or to freedom of speech. The true state of things cannot be better described than in these words from an excellent treatise on the law of libel:
illegible Our present law permits any one to say, write, and publish what he pleases; but if he make a bad use of this liberty he must be punished. If he unjustly attack an individual, the person defamed may sue for damages; if, on the other hand, the words be written or printed, or if treason or immorality be thereby inculcated, the offender can be tried for the misdemeanour either by information or indictment.7
Any man may, therefore, say or write whatever he likes, subject to the risk of, it may be, severe punishment if he publishes any statement (either by word of mouth, in writing, or in print) which he is not legally entitled to make. Nor is the law of England specially favourable to free speech or to free writing in the rules which it maintains in theory and often enforces in fact as to the kind of statements which a man has a legal right to make. Above all, it recognises in general no special privilege on behalf of the “press,” if by that term we mean, in conformity with ordinary language, periodical literature in general, and particularly the newspapers. In truth there is little in the statute-book which can be called a “press law.”8 The law of the press as it exists here is merely part of the law of libel, and it is well worth while to trace out with some care the restrictions imposed by the law of libel on the “freedom of the press,” by which expression I mean a person's right to make any statement he likes in books or newspapers.
Libels on individuals There are many statements with regard to individuals which no man is entitled to publish in writing or print; it is a libel (speaking generally) thus to publish any untrue statement about another which is calculated to injure his interests, character, or reputation. Every man who directly or indirectly makes known or, as the technical expression goes, “publishes” such a statement, gives currency to a libel and is liable to an action for damages. The person who makes a defamatory statement and authorises its publication in writing, the person who writes, the publisher who brings out for sale, the printer who prints, the vendor who distributes a libel, are each guilty of publication, and may each severally be sued. The gist of the offence being the making public, not the writing of the libel, the person who having read a libel sends it on to a friend, is a libeller; and it would seem that a man who reads aloud a libel, knowing it to be such, may be sued. This separate liability of each person concerned in a wrongful act is, as already pointed out, a very noticeable characteristic of our law. Honest belief, moreover, and good intentions on the part of a libeller, are no legal defence for his conduct. Nor will it avail him to show that he had good reason for thinking the false statement which he made to be true. Persons often must pay heavy damages for giving currency to statements which were not meant to be falsehoods, and which were reasonably believed to be true. Thus it is libellous to publish of a man who has been convicted of felony but has worked out his sentence that he “is a convicted felon.” It is a libel on the part of X if X publishes that B has told him that A's bank has stopped payment, if, though B in fact made the statement to X, and X believed the report to be true, it turns out to be false. Nor, again, are expressions of opinion when injurious to another at all certain not to expose the publisher of them to an action. A “fair” criticism, it is often said, is not libellous; but it would be a grave mistake to suppose that critics, either in the press or elsewhere, have a right to publish whatever criticisms they think true. Every one has a right to publish fair and candid criticism. But “a critic must confine himself to criticism, and not make it the veil for personal censure, nor allow himself to run into reckless and unfair attacks merely from the love of exercising his power of denunciation.”9 A writer in the press and an artist or actor whose performances are criticised are apt to draw the line between “candid criticism” and “personal censure” at very different points. And when on this matter there is a difference of opinion between a critic and his victim, the delicate question what is meant by fairness has to be determined by a jury, and may be so answered as greatly to curtail the free expression of critical judgments. Nor let it be supposed that the mere “truth” of a statement is of itself sufficient to protect the person who publishes it from liability to punishment. For though the fact that an assertion is true is an answer to an action for libel, a person may be criminally punished for publishing statements which, though perfectly true, damage an individual without being of any benefit to the public. To write, for example, and with truth of A that he many years ago committed acts of immorality may very well expose the writer X to criminal proceedings, and X if put on his trial will be bound to prove not only that A was in fact guilty of the faults imputed to him, but also that the public had an interest in the knowledge of A's misconduct. If X cannot show this, he will find that no supposed right of free discussion or respect for liberty of the press will before an English judge save him from being found guilty of a misdemeanour and sent to prison.
Libels on government We have spoken so far in very general terms of the limits placed by the law of libel on freedom of discussion as regards the character of individuals. Let us now observe for a moment the way in which the law of libel restricts in theory, at least, the right to criticise the conduct of the government.
Every person commits a misdemeanour who publishes (orally or otherwise) any words or any document with a seditious intention. Now a seditious intention means an intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection against the King or the government and constitution of the United Kingdom as by law established, or either House of Parliament, or the administration of justice, or to excite British subjects to attempt otherwise than by lawful means the alteration of any matter in Church or State by law established, or to promote feelings of illwill and hostility between different classes.10 And if the matter published is contained in a written or printed document the publisher is guilty of publishing a seditious libel. The law, it is true, permits the publication of statements meant only to show that the Crown has been misled, or that the government has committed errors, or to point out defects in the government or the constitution with a view to their legal remedy, or with a view to recommend alterations in Church or State by legal means, and, in short, sanctions criticism on public affairs which is bona fide intended to recommend the reform of existing institutions by legal methods. But any one will see at once that the legal definition of a seditious libel might easily be so used as to check a great deal of what is ordinarily considered allowable discussion, and would if rigidly enforced be inconsistent with prevailing forms of political agitation.
Expression of opinion on religious or moral questions. The case is pretty much the same as regards the free expression of opinion on religious or moral questions.11 Of late years circumstances have recalled attention to the forgotten law of blasphemy. But it surprises most persons to learn that, on one view of the law, any one who publishes a denial of the truth of Christianity in general or of the existence of God, whether the terms of such publication are decent or otherwise, commits the misdemeanour of publishing a blasphemous libel, and is liable to imprisonment; that, according to another view of the law, any one is guilty of publishing a blasphemous libel who publishes matter relating to God, Jesus Christ, or the Book of Common Prayer intended to wound the feedings of mankind, or to excite contempt against the Church by law established, or to promote immorality; and that it is at least open to grave doubt how far the publications which thus wound the feelings of mankind are exempt from the character of blasphemy because they are intended in good faith to propagate opinions which the person who publishes them regards as true.12 Most persons, again, are astonished to find that the denial of the truth of Christianity or of the authority of the Scriptures, by “writing, printing, teaching, or advised speaking” on the part of any person who has been educated in or made profession of Christianity in England, is by statute a criminal offence entailing very severe penalities.13 When once, however, the principles of the common law and the force of the enactments still contained in the statute-book are really appreciated, no one can maintain that the law of England recognises anything like that natural right to the free communication of thoughts and opinions which was proclaimed in France a little over a hundred years ago to be one of the most valuable Rights of Man. It is quite dear, further, that the effect of English law, whether as regards statements made about individuals, or the expression of opinion about public affairs, or speculative matters, depends wholly upon the answer to the question who are to determine whether a given publication is or is not a libel. The reply (as we all know) is, that in substance this matter is referred to the decision of a jury. Whether in any given case a particular individual is to be convicted of libel depends wholly upon their judgment, and they have to determine the questions of truth, fairness, intention, and the like, which affect the legal character of a published statement.14
Freedom of discussion is, then, in England little else than the right to write or say anything which a jury, consisting of twelve shopkeepers, think it expedient should be said or written. Such “liberty” may vary at different times and seasons from unrestricted license to very severe restraint, and the experience of English history during the last two centuries shows that under the law of libel the amount of latitude conceded to the expression of opinion has, in fact, differed greatly according to the condition of popular sentiment. Until very recent times the law, moreover, has not recognized any privilege on the part of the press. A statement which is defamatory or blasphemous, if made in a letter or upon a card, has exactly the same character if made in a book or a newspaper. The protection given by the Belgian constitution to the editor, printer, or seller of a newspaper involves a recognition of special rights on the part of persons connected with the press which is quite inconsistent with the general theory of English law. It is hardly an exaggeration to say, from this point of view, that liberty of the press is not recognised in England.
Why the liberty of the press has been thought peculiar to England Why then has the liberty of the press been long reputed as a special feature of English institutions?
The answer to this inquiry is, that for about two centuries the relation between the government and the press has in England been marked by all those characteristics which make up what we have termed the “rule” or “supremacy” of law, and that just because of this, and not because of any favour shown by the law of England towards freedom of discussion, the press, and especially the newspaper press, has practically enjoyed with us a freedom which till recent years was unknown in continental states. Any one will see that this is so who examines carefully the situation of the press in modem England, and then contrasts it either with the press law of France or with the legal condition of the press in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The present position of the English press is marked by two features
First, “the liberty of the press,” says Lord Mansfield, “consists in printing without any previous license, subject to the consequences of law.”15 Lord Ellenborough says:
The law of England is a law of liberty, and consistently with this liberty we have not what is called an imprimatur; there is no such preliminary license necessary; but if a man publish a paper, he is exposed to the penal consequences, as he is in every other act, if it be illegal.16
These dicta show us at once that the so-called liberty of the press is a mere application of the general principle, that no man is punishable except for a distinct breach of the law.17 This principle is radically inconsistent with any scheme of license or censorship by which a man is hindered from writing or printing anything which he thinks fit, and is hard to reconcile even with the right on the part of the Courts to restrain the circulation of a libel, until at any rate the publisher has been convicted of publishing it. It is also opposed in spirit to any regulation requiring from the publisher of an intending newspaper a preliminary deposit of a certain sum of money, for the sake either of ensuring that newspapers should be published only by solvent persons, or that if a newspaper should contain libels there shall be a certainty of obtaining damages from the proprietor. No sensible person will argue that to demand a deposit from the owner of a newspaper, or to impose other limitations upon the right of publishing periodicals, is of necessity inexpedient or unjust. All that is here insisted upon is, that such checks and preventive measures are inconsistent with the pervading principle of English law, that men are to be interfered with or punished, not because they may or will break the law, but only when they have committed some definite assignable legal offence. Hence, with one exception,18 which is a quaint survival from a different system, no such thing is known with us as a license to print, or a censorship either of the press or of political newspapers. Neither the government nor any other authority has the right to seize or destroy the stock of a publisher because it consists of books, pamphlets, or papers which in the opinion of the government contain seditious or libellous matter. Indeed, the Courts themselves will, only under very special circumstances, even for the sake of protecting an individual from injury, prohibit the publication or republication of a libel, or restrain its sale until the matter has gone before a jury, and it has been established by their verdict that the words complained of are libellous.19 Writers in the press are, in short, like every other person, subject to the law of the realm, and nothing else. Neither the government nor the Courts have (speaking generally) any greater power to prevent or oversee the publication of a newspaper than the writing and sending of a letter. Indeed, the simplest way of setting forth broadly the position of writers in the press is to say that they stand in substantially the same position as letterwriters. A man who scribbles blasphemy on a gate20 and a man who prints blasphemy in a paper or in a book commit exactly the same offence, and are dealt with in England on the same principles. Hence also writers in and owners of newspapers have, or rather had until very recently, no special privilege protecting them from liability.21 Look at the matter which way you will, the main feature of liberty of the press as understood in England is that the press (which means, of course, the writers in it) is subject only to the ordinary law of the land.
illegible Secondly, press offences, in so far as the term can be used with reference to English law, are tried and punished only by the ordinary Courts of the country, that is, by a judge and jury.22
Since the Restoration,23 offences committed through the newspapers, or, in other words, the publication therein of libels whether defamatory, seditious, or blasphemous, have never been tried by any special tribunal. Nothing to Englishmen seems more a matter of course than this. Yet nothing has in reality contributed so much to free the periodical press from any control. If the criterion whether a publication be libellous is the opinion of the jury, and a man may publish anything which twelve of his countrymen think is not blamable, it is impossible that the Crown or the Ministry should exert any stringent control over writings in the press, unless (as indeed may sometimes happen) the majority of ordinary citizens are entirely opposed to attacks on the government. The times when persons in power wish to check the excesses of public writers are times at which a large body of opinion or sentiment is hostile to the executive. But under these circumstances it must, from the nature of things, be at least an even chance that the jury called upon to find a publisher guilty of printing seditious libels may sympathise with the language which the officers of the Crown deem worthy of punishment, and hence may hold censures which are prosecuted as libels to be fair and laudable criticism of official errors. Whether the control indirectly exercised over the expression of opinion by the verdict of twelve commonplace Englishmen is at the present day certain to be as great a protection to the free expression of opinion, even in political matters, as it proved a century ago, when the sentiment of the governing body was different from the prevalent feeling of the class from which jurymen were chosen, is an interesting speculation into which there is no need to enter. What is certain is, that the practical freedom of the English press arose in great measure from the trial with us of “press offences,” like every other kind of libel, by a jury.
The liberty of the press, then, is in England simply one result of the universal predominance of the law of the land. The terms “liberty of the press,” “press offences,” “censorship of the press,” and the like, are all but unknown to English lawyers, simply because any offence which can be committed through the press is some form of libel, and is governed in substance by the ordinary law of defamation.
These things seem to us at the present day so natural as hardly to be noticeable; let us, however, glance as I have suggested at the press law of France both before and since the Revolution; and also at the condition of the press in England up to nearly the end of the seventeenth century. Such a survey will prove to us that the treatment in modern England of offences committed through the newspapers affords an example, as singular as it is striking, of the legal spirit which now pervades every part of the English constitution.
Companson with the press law of France. An Englishman who consults French authorities is struck with amazement at two facts: press law24 has long constituted and still Constitutes to a certain extent a special department of French legislation, and press offences have been, under every form of government which has existed in France, a more or less special dass of crimes. The Acts which have been passed in England with regard to the press since the days of Queen Elizabeth do not in number equal one-tenth, or even one-twentieth, of the laws enacted during the same period on the same subject in France. The contrast becomes still more marked if we compare the state of things in the two countries since the beginning of the eighteenth century, and (for the sake of avoiding exaggeration) put the laws passed since that date, and which were till 1881 in force in France, against every Act which, whether repealed or unrepealed, has been passed in England since the year 1700. It will be found that the French press code consisted, till after the establishment of the present Republic, of over thirty enactments, whilst the English Acts about the press passed since the beginning of the last century do not exceed a dozen, and, moreover, have gone very little way towards touching the freedom of writers.
The ground of this difference lies in the opposite views taken in the two countries of the proper relation of the state to literature, or, more strictly, to the expression of opinion in print.
In England the doctrine has since 1700 in substance prevailed that the government has nothing to do with the guidance of opinion, and that the sole duty of the state is to punish libels of all kinds, whether they are expressed in writing or in print. Hence the government has (speaking generally) exercised no special control over literature, and the law of the press, in so far as it can be said to have existed, has been nothing else than a branch or an application of the law of libel.
In France, literature has for centuries been considered as the particular concern of the state. The prevailing doctrine, as may be gathered from the current of French legislation, has been, and still to a certain extent is, that it is the function of the administration not only to punish defamation, slander, or blasphemy, but to guide the course of opinion, or, at any rate, to adopt preventive measures for guarding against the propagation in print of unsound or dangerous doctrines. Hence the huge amount and the special and repressive character of the press laws which have existed in France.
Up to the time of the Revolution the whole literature of the country was avowedly controlled by the state. The right to print or sell books and printed publications of any kind was treated as a special privilege or monopoly of certain libraries; the regulations (réglements) of 1723 (some part of which was till quite recently in force)25 and of 1767 confined the right of sale and printing under the severest penalties of librarians who were duly licensed.26 The right to publish, again, was submitted to the strictest censorship, exercised partly by the University (an entirely ecclesiastical body), partly by the Parliaments, partly by the Crown. The penalties of death, of the galleys, of the pillory, were from time to time imposed upon the printing or sale of forbidden works. These punishments were often evaded; but they after all retained practical force till the very eve of the Revolution. The most celebrated literary works of France were published abroad. Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois appeared at Geneva. Voltaire's Henriade was printed in England; the most remarkable of his and of Rousseau's writings were published in London, in Geneva, or in Amsterdam. In 1775 a work entitled Philosophie de la Nature was destroyed by the order of the Parliament of Paris, the author was decreed guilty of treason against God and man, and would have been burnt if he could have been arrested. In 1781, eight years before the meeting of the States General, Raynal was pronounced by the Parliament guilty of blasphemy on account of his Histoire des Indes.27 The point, however, to remark is, not so much the severity of the punishments which under the Ancien Régime were intended to suppress the expression of heterodox or false beliefs, as the strict maintenance down to 1789 of the right and duty of the state to guide the literature of the country. It should further be noted that down to that date the government made no marked distinction between periodical and other literature. When the Lettres Philosophiques could be burnt by the hangman, when the publication of the Henriade and the Encyclopédie depended on the goodwill of the King, there was no need for establishing special restrictions on newspapers. The daily or weekly press, moreover, hardly existed in France till the opening of the States General.28
The Revolution (it may be fancied) put an end to restraints upon the press. The Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaimed the fight of every citizen to publish and print his opinions, and the language has been cited29 in which the Constitution of 1791 guaranteed to every man the natural right of speaking, printing, and publishing his thoughts without having his writings submitted to any censorship or inspection prior to publication. But the Declaration of Rights and this guarantee were practically worthless. They enounced a theory which for many years was utterly opposed to the practice of every French government.
The Convention did not establish a censorship, but under the plea of preventing the circulation of seditious works it passed the law of 29th March 1793, which silenced all free expression of opinion. The Directory imitated the Convention. Under the First Empire the newspaper press became the property of the government, and the sale, printing, and publication of books was wholly submitted to imperial control and censorship.30
The years which elapsed from 1789 to 1825 were, it may be suggested, a revolutionary era which provoked or excused exceptional measures of state interference. Any one, however, who wants to see how consonant to the ideas which have permanently governed French law and French habits is the notion that the administration should by some means keep its hand on the national literature of the country, ought to note with care the course of legislation from the Restoration to the present day. The attempt, indeed, to control the publication of books has been by slow degrees given up; but one government after another has, with curious uniformity, proclaimed the freedom and ensured the subjection of the newspaper press. From,814 to 1830 the censorship was practically established (21st Oct. 2814), was partially abolished, was abolished (2829), was reestablished and extended (1820), and was re-abolished (1828).31 The Revolution of July 1830 was occasioned by an attempt to destroy the liberty of the press. The Charter made the abolition of the censorship part of the constitution, and since that date no system of censorship has been in name re-established. But as regards newspapers, the celebrated decree of 17th February 1852 enacted restrictions more rigid than anything imposed under the name of la censure by any government since the fall of Napoleon I. The government took to itself under this law, in addition to other discretionary powers, the right to suppress any newspaper without the necessity of proving the commission of any crime or offence by the owner of the paper or by any writer in its columns.32 No one, further, could under this decree set up a paper without official authorisation. Nor have different forms of the censorship been the sole restrictions imposed in France on the liberty of the press. The combined operations of enactments passed during the existence of the Republic of 1848, and under the Empire, was (among other things) to make the signature of newspaper articles by their authors compulsory,33 to require a large deposit from any person who wished to establish a paper,34 to withdraw all press offences whatever from the cognisance of a jury,35 to re-establish or reaffirm the provision contained in the réglement of 1723 by which no one could carry on the trade of a librarian or printer (commerce de la librairie) without a license. It may, in fact, be said with substantial truth that between 1852 and 1870 the newspapers of France were as much controlled by the government as was every kind of literature before 1789, and that the Second Empire exhibited a retrogression towards the despotic principles of the Ancien Régime. The Republic,36 it is true, has abolished the restraints on the liberty of the press which grew up both before and under the Empire. But though for the last twenty-seven years the ruling powers in France have favoured the liberty or license of the press, nothing is more plain than that until quite recently the idea that press offences were a peculiar class of offences to be dealt with in a special way and punished by special courts was accepted by every party in France. This is a matter of extreme theoretical importance. It shows how foreign to French notions is the idea that every breach of law ought to be dealt with by the ordinary law of the land. Even a cursory survey—and no other is possible in these lectures—of French legislation with regard to literature proves, then, that from the time when the press came into existence up to almost the present date the idea has held ground that the state, as represented by the executive, ought to direct or control the expression of opinion, and that this control has been exercised by an official censorship—by restrictions on the right to print or sell books—and by the subjection of press offences to special laws administered by special tribunals. The occasional relaxation of these restrictions is of importance. But their recurring revival is of far more significance than their temporary abolition.37
illegible Let us now turn to the position of the English press during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The Crown originally held all presses in its own hands, allowed no one to print except under special license, and kept all presses subject to regulations put forward by the Star Chamber in virtue of the royal prerogative: the exclusive privilege of printing was thus given to ninety-seven London stationers and their successors, who, as the Stationers” Company, constituted a guild with power to seize all publications issued by outsiders; the printing-presses ultimately conceded to the Universities existed only by a decree of the Star Chamber.
Side by side with the restrictions on printing—which appear to have more or less broken down—there grew up a system of licensing which constituted a true censorship.38
Press offences constituted a special class of crimes cognisable by a special tribunal—the Star Chamber—which sat without a jury and administered severe punishments.39 The Star Chamber indeed fell in 1642, never to be revived, but the censorship survived the Commonwealth, and was under the Restoration (1662) given a strictly legal foundation by the statute 13 & 14 Car. II. c. 33, which by subsequent enactments was kept in force till 1695.40
Original likeness and subsequent unlikeness between press law of England and of France. There existed, in short, in England during the sixteenth and seven-teenth centuries every method of curbing the press which was then practised in France, and which has prevailed there almost up to the present day. In England, as on the Continent, the book trade was a monopoly, the censorship was in full vigour, the offences of authors and printers were treated as special crimes and severely punished by spedal tribunals. This similarity or identity of the principles with regard to the treatment of literature originally upheld by the government of England and by the government of France is striking. It is rendered still more startling by the contrast between the subsequent history of legislation in the two countries. In France (as we have already seen) the censorship, though frequently abolished, has almost as frequently been restored. In England the system of licensing, which was the censorship under another name, was terminated rather than abolished in 1695. The House of Commons, which refused to continue the Licensing Act, was certainly not imbued with any settled enthusiasm for liberty of thought. The English statesmen of 1695 neither avowed nor entertained the belief that the “free communication of thoughts and opinions was one of the most valuable of the rights of man.”41 They refused to renew the Licensing Act, and thus established freedom of the press without any knowledge of the importance of what they were doing. This can be asserted with confidence, for the Commons delivered to the Lords a document which contains the reasons for their refusing to renew the Act.
This paper completely vindicates the resolution to which the Commons had come. But it proves at the same time that they knew not what they were doing, what a revolution they were making, what a power they were calling into existence. They pointed out concisely, clearly, forcibly, and sometimes with a grave irony which is not unbecoming, the absurdities and iniquities of the statute which was about to expire. But all their objections will be found to relate to matters of detail. On the great question of principle, on the question whether the liberty of unlicensed printing be, on the whole, a blessing or a curse to society, not a word is said. The Licensing Act is condemned, not as a thing essentially evil, but on account of the petty grievances, the exactions, the jobs, the commercial restrictions, the domiciliary visits, which were incidental to it. It is pronounced mischievous because it enables the Company of Stationers to extort money from publishers, because it empowers the agents of the government to search houses under the authority of general warrants, because it confines the foreign book trade to the port of London; because it detains valuable packages of books at the Custom House till the pages are mildewed. The Commons complain that the amount of the fee which the licenser may demand is not fixed. They complain that it is made penal in an officer of the Customs to open a box of books from abroad, except in the presence of one of the censors of the press. How, it is very sensibly asked, is the officer to know that there are books in the box till he has opened it? Such were the arguments which did what Milton's Areopagitica had failed to do.42
How slight was the hold of the principle of the liberty of the press on the statesmen who abolished the censorship is proved by their entertaining, two years later, a bill (which, however, never passed) to prohibit the unlicensed publication of news.43 Yet while the solemn declaration by the National Assembly of 1789 of the right to the free expression of thought remained a dead letter, or at best a speculative maxim of French jurisprudence which, though not without influence, was constantly broken in upon by the actual law of France, the refusal of the English Parliament in 1695 to renew the Licensing Act did permanently establish the freedom of the press in England. The fifty years which followed were a period of revolutionary disquiet fairly comparable with the era of the Restoration in France. But the censorship once abolished in England was never revived, and all idea of restrictions on the liberty of the press other than those contained in the law of libel have been so long unknown to Englishmen, that the rare survivals in our law of the notion that literature ought to be controlled by the state appear to most persons inexplicable anomalies, and are tolerated only because they produce so little inconvenience that their existence is forgotten.
Questions suggested by original similanty and final difference between press law of France and of England. TO a student who surveys the history of the liberty of the press in France and in England two questions suggest themselves. How does it happen that down to the end of the seventeenth century the principles upheld by the Crown in each country were in substance the same? What, again, is the explanation of the fact that from the beginning of the eighteenth century the principles governing the law of the press in the two countries have been, as they still continue to be, essentially different? The similarity and the difference each seems at first sight equally perplexing. Yet both one and the other admit of explanation, and the solution of an apparent paradox is worth giving because of its dose bearing on the subject of this lecture, namely, the predominance of the spirit of legality which distinguishes the law of the constitution.
Reasons for original similarity The ground of the similarity between the press law of England and of France from the beginning of the sixteenth till the beginning of the eighteenth century, is that the governments, if not the people, of each country were during that period influenced by very similar admirdstrative notions and by similar ideas as to the relation between the state and individuals. In England, again, as in every European country, the belief prevailed that a King was responsible for the religious belief of his subjects. This responsibility involves the necessity for regulating the utterance and formation of opinion. But this direction or control cannot be exercised without governmental interference with that liberty of the press which is at bottom the right of every man to print any opinion which he chooses to propagate, subject only to risk of punishment if his expressions contravene some distinct legal maxim. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in short, the Crown was in England, as in France, extending its administrative powers; the Crown was in England, as in France, entitled, or rather required by public opinion, to treat the control of literature as an affair of state. Similar circumstances produced similar results; in each country the same principles prevailed; in each country the treatment of the press assumed, therefore, a similar character.
Reason for letter dissimilarity The reason, again, why, for nearly two centuries, the press has been treated in France on principles utterly different from those which have been accepted in England, lies deep in the difference of the spirit which has governed the customs and laws of the two countries.
In France the idea has always flourished that the government, whether Royal, Imperial, or Republican, possesses, as representing the state, rights and powers as against individuals superior to and independent of the ordinary law of the land. This is the real basis of that whole theory of a droit administratif,44 which it is so hard for Englishmen fully to understand. The increase, moreover, in the authority of the central government has at most periods both before and since the Revolution been, or appeared to most Frenchmen to be, the means of removing evils which oppressed the mass of the people. The nation has in general looked upon the authority of the state with the same favour with which Englishmen during the sixteenth century regarded the prerogative of the Crown. The control exercised in different forms by the executive over literature has, therefore, in the main fully harmonised with the other institutions of France. The existence, moreover, of an elaborate administrative system, the action of which has never been subject to the control of the ordinary tribunals, has always placed in the hands of whatever power was supreme in France the means of enforcing official surveillance of literature. Hence the censorship (to speak of no other modes of checking the liberty of the press) has been on the whole in keeping with the general action of French governments and with the average sentiment of the nation, whilst there has never been wanting appropriate machinery by which to carry the censorship into effect.
No doubt there were heard throughout the eighteenth century, and have been heard ever since, vigorous protests against the censorship, as against other forms of administrative arbitrariness; and at the beginning of the Great Revolution, as at other periods since, efforts were made in favour of free discussion. Hence flowed the abolition of the censorship, but this attempt to limit the powers of the government in one particular direction was quite out of harmony with the general reverence for the authority of the state. As long, moreover, as the whole scheme of French administration was left in force, the government, in whatever hands it was placed, always retained the means of resuming its control over the press, whenever popular feeling should for a moment favour the repression of free speech. Hence arose the constantly recurring restoration of the abolished censorship or of restraints which, though not called by the unpopular name of la censure, were more stringent than has ever been any Licensing Act. Restrictions, in short, on what Englishmen understand by the liberty of the press have continued to exist in France and are hardly now abolished, because the exercise of preventive and discretionary authority on the part of the executive harmonises with the general spirit of French law, and because the administrative machinery, which is the creation of that spirit, has always placed (as it still places) in the hands of the executive the proper means for enforcing discretionary authority.
In England, on the other hand, the attempt made by the Crown during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to form a strong central administration, though it was for a time attended with success, because it met some of the needs of the age, was at bottom repugnant to the manners and traditions of the country; and even at a time when the people wished the Crown to be strong, they hardly liked the means by which the Crown exerted its strength.
Hundreds of Englishmen who hated toleration and cared little for freedom of speech, entertained a keen jealousy of arbitrary power, and a fixed determination to be ruled in accordance with the law of the land.45 These sentiments abolished the Star Chamber in 1641, and made the re-establishment of the hated Court impossible even for the frantic loyalty of 1660. But the destruction of the Star Chamber meant much more than the abolition of an unpopular tribunal; it meant the rooting up from its foundations of the whole of the administrative system which had been erected by the Tudors and extended by the Stuarts. This overthrow of a form of administration which contradicted the legal habits of Englishmen had no direct connection with any desire for the uncontrolled expression of opinion. The Parliament which would not restore the Star Chamber or the Court of High Commission passed the Licensing Act, and this statute, which in fact establishes the censorship, was, as we have seen, continued in force for some years after the Revolution. The passing, however, of the statute, though not a triumph of toleration, was a triumph of legality. The power of licensing depended henceforward, not on any idea of inherent executive authority, but on the statute law. The right of licensing was left in the hands of the government, but this power was regulated by the words of a statute; and, what was of more consequence, breaches of the Act could be punished only by proceedings in the ordinary Courts. The fall of the Star Chamber deprived the executive of the means for exercising arbitrary power. Hence the refusal of the House of Commons in 1695 to continue the Licensing Act was something very different from the proclamation of freedom of thought contained in the French Declaration of Rights, or from any of the laws which have abolished the censorship in France. To abolish the right of the government to control the press, was, in England, simply to do away with an exceptional authority, which was opposed to the general tendency of the law, and the abolition was final, because the executive had already lost the means by which the control of opinion could be effectively enforced.
To sum the whole matter up, the censorship though constantly abolished has been constantly revived in France, because the exertion of discretionary powers by the government has been and still is in harmony with French laws and institutions. The abolition of the censorship was final in England, because the exercise of discretionary power by the Crown was inconsistent with our system of administration and with the ideas of English law. The contrast is made the more striking by the paradoxical fact, that the statesmen who tried with little success to establish the liberty of the press in France really intended to proclaim freedom of opinion, whilst the statesmen who would not pass the Licensing Act, and thereby founded the liberty of the press in England, held theories of toleration which fell far short of favouring unrestricted liberty of discussion. This contrast is not only striking in itself, but also affords the strongest illustration that can be found of English conceptions of the rule of law.
Duguit et Monnier, Les Constitutions de la France, p. 1.
Bourguignon, Éléments Généraux de Législation Française, p. 468.
Déar. des droits, art. 11, Plouard, p. 16, Duguit et Monnier, p. 2.
Constitution de 1791, Tit. 1; Plouard, p. 18, Duguit et Monnier, p. 4.
Constitution de la Belgique, art. 18.
It appears, however, in the Preamble to Lord Campbell's Act, 1843, 6 & 7 Vict. c. 96.
Odgers, Libel and Slander, Introd. (3rd ed.), p. 12.
For exceptions to this, see e.g. 8 & 9 Vict. c. 75; 44 & 45 Vict. c. 60, s. 2. It is, however, true, as pointed out by one of my critics (see the Law of the Press, by Fisher & Strahan, 2nd ed. p. iii.), that “there is slowly growing up a distinct law of the press.” The tendency of recent press legislation is to a certain extent to free the proprietors of newspapers from the full amount of liability which attaches to other persons for the bona fide publication of defamatory statements made at public meetings and the like. See especially the Libel Law Amendment Act, 1888 (51 & 52 Vict. c. 64), s. 4. Whether this deviation from the principles of the common law is, or is not, of benefit to the public, is an open question which can be answered only by experience.
Whistler v. Ruskin, “The Times,” Nov. 27,1878, per Huddleston, B.
See Stephen, Digest of the Criminal the law (6th ed.), arts. 96, 97, 98.
Ibid., arts. 179–183.
See especially Stephen, Digest of the Criminal Law (6th ed.), art. 179, and contrast Odgers (3rd ed.), pp. 475–490, where a view of the law is maintained differing from that of Sir J. F. Stephen.
See 9 & 10 Will. III. c. 35, as altered by 53 Geo. III. c. 160, and Stephen's Digest of the Criminal Law, art. 181. Conf. Attorney-General v. Bradlaugh, 14 Q. B. D. (C. A.), 667, p. 719, judgment of Lindley, L. J.
“The truth of the matter is very simple when stripped of all ornaments of speech, and a man of plain common sense may easily understand it. It is neither more nor less than this: that a man may publish anything which twelve of his countrymen think is not blamable, but that he ought to be punished if he publishes that which is blamable [i.e. that which twelve of his countrymen think is blamable. This in plain common sense is the substance of all that has been said on the matter.”—Rex v. Cutbill, 27 St. Tr. 642, 675.
Rex v. Dean of St. Asaph, 3 T. R. 431 (note).
16Rex v. Cobbett, 29 St. Tr. 49; see Odgers, Libel and Slander (3rd ed.), p. 10.
See p. 110, ante.
I.e. the licensing of plays. See the Theatres Act, 1843, 6 & 7 Vict. c. 68; Stephen, Commentaries (14th ed.), iii. p. 227.
Compare Odgers, Libel and Slander (3rd ed.), chap. xiii., especially pp. 388–399, with the first edition of Mr. Odgers” work, pp. 13–16.
Reg. v. Pooley, cited Stephen, Digest of the Criminal Law (6th ed.), p. 125.
This statement must be to a certain extent qualified in view of the Libel Act, 1843,6 & 7 Vict. c. 96, the Newspaper Libel and Registration Act, 1882,44 & 45 Vict. c. 60, and the Law of Libel Amendment Act, 1888, 52 & 52 Vict. c. 64, which do give some amount of special protection to bona fide reports, e.g. of public meetings, in newspapers.
The existence, however, of process by criminal information, and the rule that truth was no justification, had the result that during the eighteenth century seditious libel rose almost to the rank of a press offence, to be dealt with, if not by separate tribunals, at any rate by special rules enforced by a special procedure.
See as to the state of the press under the Commonwealth, Masson, Life of Milton, iii. pp. 265–297. Substantially the possibility of trying press offences by special tribunals was put an end to by the abolition of the Star Chamber in 1641, 16 Car. I. c. 10.
The press is now governed in France by the Loi sur la liberte de k presse, 29–30 Juill. 1881. This law repeals all earlier edicts, decrees, laws, ordinances, etc. on the subject. Immediately before this law was passed there were in force more than thirty enactments regulating the position of the French press, and inflicting penalties on offences which could be committed by writers in the press; and the three hundred and odd closely printed pages of Dalloz, treating of laws on the press, show that the enactments then in vigour under the Republic were as nothing compared to the whole mass of regulations, ordinances, decrees, and laws which, since the earliest days of printing down to the year 1881, have been issued by French rulers with the object of controlling the literary expression of opinion and thought. See Dalloz, Rdpertoire, vol. xxxvi., “Presse,” pp. 384–776, and especially Tit. I. chap. i., Tit. 11. chap. iv.; Roger et Sorel, Codes et Loi Usuelles, “Presse,” 637–652; Duguit, Manuel de Droit Constitutionnel, pp. 575–582.
See Dalloz, Rdpertoire, vol. xxxvi., “Presse,” Tit. I. chap. i. Compare Roger et Sorel, Codeset Lois, “Presse,” pp. 637–652.
See Dalloz, Répertoire, vol. xxxvi., “Presse,” Tit. I. chap. i. Compare Roger et Sorel, Codes et Lois, “Presse,” pp. 637–652.
See Rocquain, L'Esprit Révolutionnaire avant la Révolution, for a complete list of “Livres Condamnés” from 1715 to 1789. Rocquain's book is fill of information on the arbitrariness of the French Government during the reigns of Louis XV. and Louis XVI.
See p. 146, ante.
Dalloz, Répertoire, xxxvi., “Presse,” Tit. I. chap. i.
See Duguit, Traité de Droit Constitutionnel, i. pp. 91, 92.
Décret, 17 Février, 1852, sec, 32, Roger et Sorel, Codes et Lois, p. 648.
Roger et Sorel, Codes et Lois, p. 646. Lois, 16 Julliet 1850.
Roger et Sorel, Codes et Lois, p. 646. Lois, 16 Juillet 1850.
Lois, 31 Déc. 1852.
One thing is perfectly clear and deserves notice. The legislation of the existing Republic was not till 1881, any more than that of the Restoration or the Empire, based on the view of the press which pervades the modern law of England. “Press law” still formed a special department of the law of France. “Press offences” were a particular class of crimes, and there were at least two provisions, and probably several more, to be found in French laws which conflicted with the doctrine of the liberty of the press as understood in England. A law passed under the Republic (6th July 1871. Roger et Sorel, Codes et Lois, p. 652) reimposed on the proprietors of newspapers the necessity of making a large deposit, with the proper authorities, as a security for the payment of fines or damages incurred in the course of the management of the paper. A still later law (29th December 1875, s. 5. Roger et Sorel, Codes et Lois, p. 652), while it submitted some press offences to the judgment of a jury, subjected others to the cognisance of Courts of which a jury formed no part. The law of 29th July 1881 establishes the freedom of the press. Recent French legislation exhibits, no doubt, a violent reaction against all attempts to check the freedom of the press, but in its very effort to secure this freedom betrays the existence of the notion that offences committed through the press require in some sort exceptional treatment.
Note the several laws passed since 1881 to repress the abuse of freedom in one form or another by the press, e.g. the law of and August 1882, modified and completed by the law of 16th March 1898, for the suppression of violations of moral principles (outrages aux bonnesmœurs) by the press, the law of 28th July 1894, to suppress the advocacy of anarchical principles by the press, and the law of 16th March 1893, giving the French government special powers with regard to foreign newspapers, or newspapers published in a foreign language. Conf. Duguit, Manuel deDroit Constitutionnel, p. 582.
See for the control exercised over the press down to 1695, Odgers, Libel and Slander (3rd ed.), pp. 10–13.
Gardiner, History of England, vii. pp. 51,130; ibid., viii. pp. 225, 234.
See Macaulay, History of England, iv. chaps, xix, xxi.
See Declaration of the Rights of Man, art. 11, p. 146, ante.
Macaulay, History of England, iv. pp. 541, 542.
Macaulay, History of England, iv. pp. 771, 772.
See Chap. Xll. post.
See Selden's remarks on the illegality of the decrees of the Star Chamber, cited Gardiner, History of England, vii. p. 51.