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II.: Offences of the Press with respect to Private Rights. - James Mill, Liberty of the Press 
Supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica (London: J. Innes, 1825).
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Offences of the Press with respect to Private Rights.
Agreeably to the principles which have been already considered in the article Jurisprudence, no act can be regarded as an offence with respect to an individual, which is not a violation of some of his rights.*
In considering the rights which ought to be established with respect to reputation, one proposition may be assumed; That every man should be considered as having a right to the character which he deserves; that is, to be spoken of according to his actions.
Such Offences should be defined.
In what manner the definition of this right, which would form a part of the civil code, should be expressed, is not now the question; it is evident there is no peculiar difficulty in the matter. As words, not thoughts, are the object of legal cognizance, the right can only have respect to security against certain words; words, imputing to the individual, actions which he has not performed, or a disposition to certain actions, without evidence that such a disposition exists.
Suppose that one man has instituted a suit against another, for the offence of having violated, through the press, his right to some part of the reputation which he deserves. In his ground of complaint he must affirm that the man has imputed to him either the performance of actions which he did not commit, or a disposition to certain actions, where no evidence of such disposition can be given.
The words are produced; and the first question is, whether they do or do not impute the actions which, in the complaint, or bill of accusation, they are alleged to impute?
It is to be observed, that they who oppose the attempt to define the offences, which, for shortness, we call the offences of the press, make use of such occasions, as this, to raise their objections. How, they ask, can all the forms of expression be defined, by which the imputation of such and such actions may be, either more openly, or more covertly, conveyed?
It is very evident that the question, on such an occasion, whether the words do or do not impute such or such actions, is a question of fact. The law says, that such and such actions shall not be imputed, defining the actions. Whether such and such a man has imputed such actions, and whether by one set of words, or another set of words, are questions of fact.
The law, when it said that such and such acts should not be imputed to a man, could not determine whether A, who is accused by B, of having imputed to him one of those acts, did so, or not. That is to be determined by evidence, bearing upon the point. One, and in general the main article of that evidence, are the words which have been used. What is the import of these words; or, which comes to the same thing, what is the degree of proof involved in them, is to be determined, as all questions respecting the weight of evidence are, in each instance, to be determined, by the tribunal before which the accusation is brought. The interpretation of words rests upon the same footing in this, as in all other cases, that, for example, of a Will. The law determines, that whatsoever disposition a man has made with respect to his property, shall take effect after his death. But whether A has left his manor of Dale to B, is a matter of fact to be determined by evidence applying to that particular point; principally by that arising from the words of the will.
It may still be argued, by persons who do not easily renounce an opinion to which they have once given their support, that the actions, the imputation of which, the legislature means to prohibit, cannot be defined.
But this is a position which cannot long be maintained.
It is hurtful to a man, if he is believed to have committed some actions, or to have a disposition to commit them; it is not hurtful in the case of others. Evidently it is by imputation of the first sort alone, that any right with respect to reputation can be infringed.
The acts, which a man receives injury from being believed to have committed, or to be disposed to commit, are either those to which the law has annexed penalties, or those to which the penalties of public disrepute and dislike are annexed.
With respect to those acts to which the law has annexed penalties, as theft, murder, perjury, and so on, it will not be pretended that there is any difficulty; the law has already defined them, or ought to define them, and they may be marked with perfect precision by a few words.
Those acts which it is hurtful to a man, solely on account of the disrepute and dislike which they produce, to have it believed that he has committed them, may also he with sufficient accuracy determined.
Compensation should be made to the individual for injuries sustained by Offences of the Press.
The ends to be attained by punishment are, Reparation to the individual to whom injury has been done, and Prevention of similar acts in future.
In the idea of all punishment, effectual reparation to the injured individual is a necessary and essential ingredient. Suppose, then, it were declared by the legislature, that every imputation to a man of acts which bring the evil of dislike and disrepute upon him who has committed them, that is, every false imputation, shall be punished at least by reparation to be made to the party injured; the term evil is to this purpose perfectly precise. It would remain with the complainant to show what kind and degree of injury he had received; which is a matter of fact, to be estimated, in each instance, from the evidence adduced, by the tribunal before which the question is brought. If the injury sustained is a pecuniary injury, the question coincides exactly with the question of damages, decided regularly, in English courts, as a question of fact, by the jury.
Injuries of the kind which we are now considering can affect a man only in two ways; either, by lessening the pecuniary value which he might otherwise have enjoyed; or, by lessening the marks of respect and affection which he would otherwise have received. What the loss is, in this latter instance, is also evidently a question of fact. It has nothing, therefore, to do with the legal definition of the offence, the business of the legislature. It is a question, which, like all other questions of fact, must of necessity be determined upon evidence by the tribunal before which it is brought. It is no doubt a question of delicacy, and considerable difficulty, because the evidence must often consist of very fine and minute circumstances, which can seldom be precisely ascertained. But this is not the only class of judicial questions, the determination of which depends upon such evidence as it is very difficult accurately to collect and to weigh. What is of greatest importance, on this occasion, to remark is, that all the difficulty lies in the matter of fact. There is no doubt or obscurity in the law, which says, that whatsoever hurt a man has sustained through actions or dispositions falsely imputed to him, he shall receive compensation for. Difficulties, however, arising either from the complexity of the matter of fact, or the obscurity of the evidence, no legislative enactments can prevent. These are confided to the skill and integrity of the judge.
The compensation which ought to be made to a man for the diminution of those marks of respect and affection which he would otherwise have received, is a question for the legislature. Let us suppose that a soldier has been accused of cowardice, in such a manner as to create a general belief of the truth of the accusation; that a man of honour has been accused of mendacity, or of some of those irregular propensities to which the horror of the public is attached; it is evident that money is not, in such cases, an appropriate compensation.
When a man, through the offence of another, has been deprived of a certain amount of money, or of money’s worth, we say that he has received compensation, when he is placed in the same situation in which he would have been, if the offence had never taken place.
According to this idea of compensation, a man, against whom an unfavourable opinion has been created, by the act of another man, has received compensation, when he is placed in the same situation with regard to the opinion of those with whom he is connected, as if that act had not taken place. This, therefore, is the object which it ought to be the endeavour of the legislature to effect.
One expedient is perfectly appropriate. It is, that the man who has falsely propagated an unfavourable opinion with respect to another, should be made to do whatever is in his power to remove the impression he has made. To this end, he should publish the sentence of the judge, declaring that the action, or disposition which he had imputed to the individual injured, he had imputed to him falsely. He should at least be made to publish it in every way in which he had published the imputation. Frequently a more extensive publication might be required.
In most cases, it will be allowed, that thus much would suffice. It may, however, be affirmed, that often the impression would be too profoundly struck, to be effaced by a mere knowledge of the sentence of the judge. In such cases, something more in the way of compensation would be required. On this, it is of importance to be observed, that if the impression produced by an imputation, which, after solemn inquiry, the judge has declared to be false, should not, by that declaration, be completely effaced, it implies necessarily one of two things; either that the public have evidence of the truth of the accusation, which was not adduced to the judge, and then the remaining impression is not owing to the imputation which the judge has condemned, but to the evidence; or, secondly, that the public mind is in a state of gross ignorance and imbecility, capable of forming opinions, even on the clearest subjects, not only not according to evidence, but in opposition to it. If the public mind, however, is in such a deplorable condition, it is the fault of the legislature; and for the rectification of this evil, the best course undoubtedly is, to take effectual measures for the instruction of the people, which instruction would soon place them beyond the danger of such delusions. In the mean time, if something more than the publication of the sentence of the judge were necessary to restore a man to that degree of consideration, of which the false imputation had deprived him, governments have numerous ways of raising the consequence of individuals; and no legislature would be at a loss for a gradation of expedients suited to the scale of demand.
Means which should be used for preventing the violation of Rights by the Press.
We have now illustrated that part of this question which regards compensation to the injured individual. It remains to inquire what is best to be done in this case, for the attainment of the other object of punishment, namely, the prevention of similar offences in time to come.
To devise a punishment sufficient to prevent an offence, is to provide a motive sufficient to counteract the motive which leads to the offence. We have hence to consider what are the motives by which men are incited to make false imputations on the characters of others.
These motives may be of three different sorts. A man may derive pecuniary profit, he may derive comparative distinction, or he may satisfy his desire of vengeance, by blackening the character of his neighbour.
In the case in which a man has by calumny wrongfully intercepted the pecuniary receipts of his neighbour, the obligation of making satisfaction to the party injured would, it is obvious, alone suffice, provided the machinery of the laws were sufficiently perfect, to render the execution of them certain. Seldom would any man calumniate his neighbour, for the sake of placing £20 in his own pocket, if he were sure that, next day, or next week, he would have to restore it, with all the profit which might have been made by the use of it, and with the disgrace besides of having committed an action which other men abhor.
Sometimes, however, a man may derive pecuniary profit from calumniating persons whom he has not by that means deprived of any pecuniary advantage; by the sale, for example, of a slanderous publication; when the satisfaction due to the individual may not be of a nature to counteract the motive which leads to the offence. The expedient in this case, also, is sufficiently obvious, and sufficiently simple. It is necessary to ascertain the whole of the gain which has been made by the offender, and to take it away from him. This, together with the satisfaction which he ought to make to the injured individual, would, if it were certain, create a surplus of motive to abstain from the injurious act.
In both of these cases, if the execution of the law is uncertain, an additional punishment may be necessary, sufficient to compensate for the chance of escape. The allowance to be made on this score must depend upon the imperfection of the laws; while one important fact is to be kept in remembrance, that as severity of punishment, beyond a certain point, is increased, certainty of execution is diminished. The true expedient, therefore, is to render the machinery of the laws so perfect, that the penalties which they denounce may always be sure of execution; and, then, hardly any thing, beyond compensation to the individual, and the abstraction of any additional gain which might have been made by the propagation of slander, would be necessary to repress all offences against the reputation of others, to which the motive was constituted by pecuniary gain.
The two remaining cases are still more simple. If a man propagates a falsehood, for the sake of injuring the character of a man by whom his own consideration is eclipsed, it is only when he expects to obtain by that means a permanent advantage. If he knows that immediately the law will take its hold upon him; that he will be compelled to re-elevate the character of his neighbour, and to proclaim his own disgrace, he will see that, to attempt depressing the character of another man by calumny, is the very worst of all expedients, for giving a comparative elevation to his own. The same is the result in the case where vengeance constitutes the motive to injure the reputation of another. To render this proposition manifest, the most obvious illustration will suffice. No man, to gratify his malignity to another person, would kill his ox or his ass, provided he were sure that immediately he would be obliged to make him full satisfaction; and instead of injuring the man whom he hated, to injure only himself. No, the rudeness and inefficacy of the law, holding out a chance of escaping the duty of making reparation, is the sole origin and cause of all offences of this description; and if the law were placed in a state but approaching to perfection, hardly any thing beside the obligation of making satisfaction would be necessary to repress the whole of this order of crimes.
Whether any Imputation by which Truth is not violated, should be considered an Offence by the Press.
We have now made considerable progress in this important inquiry. We have ascertained, we think, with sufficient evidence, all that is necessary to be done for preventing injuries to the reputation of individuals; provided the rights of reputation are not, by the civil code, made to extend beyond the boundaries of truth. Whether or not they ought to extend farther, and individuals ought to be protected from the disclosure of acts which they may have committed, is, we confess, a question highly worthy of solution; upon which, therefore, before we proceed to any of the subsequent topics, we shall offer the following reflections.
There can be no doubt that the feelings of the individual may be as painful, where actions of a disreputable nature are, truly, as where they are falsely, imputed to him. It is equally certain, that no painful feelings ought to be wilfully excited in any man, where no good, sufficient to overbalance that evil, is its natural consequence.
We have already shown, that reputation is injured by the imputation of acts of two different descriptions; first, those to which the law annexes penalties; secondly, those to which disrepute and the dislike of others are annexed.
With respect to those acts to which the law annexes penalties, there is no room for uncertainty or dispute. Unless the law is a bad law, which ought to be repealed (this, we confess, constitutes an exception, and one, which, in very imperfect codes, extends a great way), the law ought not to be disappointed of its execution. The man who gives information against a murderer, or a thief, by the press, or without the press, renders a public service, and deserves not punishment but reward.
It appears, therefore, that the question, whether a man ought to be protected from the imputation of actions which he has really committed, refers solely to those acts which, without being punishable by the law, are attended with disrepute; acts, in other words, which the members of the society disapprove and dislike.
The prospect of the immediate and public exposure of all acts of this description, would be a most effectual expedient to prevent their being committed. Men would obtain the habit of abstaining from them, and would feel it as little painful to abstain, as at present it is to any well educated person to keep from theft, or those acts which constitute the ill manners of the vulgar. The fable of Momus has always been understood to carry an important moral. He found grievous fault that a window had not been placed in the breast of every man, by which, not his actions alone, but his thoughts, might have been known. The magnanimity of that Roman has been highly applauded, who not only placed his residence in such a situation that his fellow-citizens might see as much as possible of his actions, but declared a wish that he could open to all eyes his breast as well as his house.
If the hatred and contempt of the people, therefore, were always rightly directed, and rightly proportioned; if they never operated against any actions but those which were hurtful, either to the individual himself, or to others, and never, but in the degree in which they were hurtful, the case would be clear; the advantage which would be derived from the true exposure of any man’s actions of any sort, would exceed beyond calculation the attendant evil. The great difficulty of insuring the practice of morality, in those numerous and highly important cases, to which the legal sanction, or the security of pains and penalties, does not extend, consists in the want of a motive always present, and powerful enough to counteract the instant motive which urges to the instant offence. That motive almost every man would derive from the knowledge that he had the eyes upon him of all those, the good opinion of whom it was his interest to preserve; that no immoral act of his would escape their observation, and a proportionate share of their hatred and contempt. It is in this view that the aid of religion has been sometimes regarded as of importance to morality; suggesting the idea of a high and constant observer. All motives, however, are feeble, in proportion as the pains and pleasures upon which they depend are distant, vague, or uncertain. Divines agree with all other men in complaining of the trifling effect of religious motives upon the lives of the greater number of men. From the nature of the prospect on which these motives depend, they could not be less feeble than they have been thus described. The case is not the same with the motives arising from the sentiments which we know we shall inspire in the breasts of our fellow-creatures. It is a matter of daily and incontrovertible experience, that these are among the most powerful which operate upon the human mind. The soldier rushes upon death, and endures all the hardships and toils of his cruel profession, that he may enjoy the admiration, and escape the contempt of his fellow-men. On what else is founded the greater part of all human pursuits? How few, even of those who toil at the meanest occupations, but exert themselves to have something for show, something to make an impression upon the eyes of those who surround them? The very subject of the present inquiry derives from this source the whole of its importance. The value of reputation is, indeed, but another name for the value which we attach to the favourable and unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-men.
It is, however, true, that their unfavourable sentiments do not always fall where they ought, and this, we confess, is a consideration of the highest importance. It very often happens that men’s antipathies are excited to actions from which no evil ensues, either to him who performs them, or to any body else. If any man derives a pleasure from such actions, it is to limit his sphere of innocent enjoyment, to debar him from them. And if the press exposes him to the antipathies, the hatred, and contempt of his fellow-creatures, on account of those actions, it produces an evil, uncompensated by the smallest portion of good. To an Indian Brahmen, if he were known to have eaten, even when starving, a morsel of food which had been prepared by a Christian, the consequences would be dreadful. Where the Roman Catholic religion is in vigour, a man who should indulge himself in animal food on forbidden days would be regarded with horror. The use of wine, however moderate, would render a Mahomedan execrable to the whole of his tribe.
This misdirection of the favourable and unfavourable sentiments of mankind; in other words, this perversion and corruption of their moral sentiments, has, in by far the greater number of instances, been the work of priests, contriving the means of increasing their influence. In some very important instances, such, for example, as the prejudices of birth, at one time in Europe so powerful as to make men of low birth objects of the greatest contempt, men of elevated birth objects of the highest veneration; the perversion of the moral sentiments is evidently the work of the aristocratical class, securing to themselves a more easy dominion over the rest of their fellow-creatures.
It is, therefore, evident, that where antipathies, religious or aristocratical, should prevail, the press would be hurtfully employed in giving notoriety to the facts which would expose a man to the operation of either.
We have now ascertained the cases in which it would not be good that men should be protected from the declaration of truth by the press, and also the cases in which it would be good that they should be so protected.
What, upon this view of the subject, would be desirable, is sufficiently clear. It would be desirable that, in the one set of cases, the declaration should be allowed, in the other it should not be allowed. Are the two sets of cases, however, capable of being accurately distinguished?
If the comparison is made with any attention, it will not be difficult to determine that the evil to be incurred by the loss of truth in the set of cases in which the declaration of it would be useful, is much greater than that which would arise from permitting the declaration in the cases in which it would be hurtful.
In the first place, the set of cases in which the declaration would be useful are much more numerous, and much more important, than those in which, in any tolerably civilized state of society, it would be hurtful. Those in which it would be useful embrace the whole field of morality, all those acts, the performance of which, on account of their singular importance, has been elevated to the rank of virtues. Every body believes and proclaims, that the universal practice of the moral virtues would ensure the highest measure of human happiness; no one doubts that the misery which, to so deplorable a degree, overspreads the globe, while men injure men, and instead of helping and benefiting, supplant, defraud, mislead, pillage, and oppress, one another, would thus be nearly exterminated, and something better than the dreams of the golden age would be realized upon earth. Toward the attainment of this most desirable state of things, nothing in the world is capable of contributing so much as the full exercise of truth upon all immoral actions,—all actions, the practice of which is calculated to lessen the amount of human happiness. According to this view, the justice of which it is impossible to dispute, the evil incurred by forbidding the declaration of truth upon all immoral actions is incalculable. That which would be incurred by the antipathies of misguided minds against actions innocent in themselves, nobody, we should imagine, would so much as think of placing in comparison.
In our own country, for example, the classes of actions which, though they injure nobody, expose a man to the unfavourable sentiments of others, are not numerous. The number of persons who would be exposed to inconvenience on account of the declaration of truth, in regard to them, would be small in comparison with those who would benefit by its declaration in the case of all really hurtful acts.
It is, indeed, important to be observed, that a comparative smallness of number is necessarily implied in the supposition of injury from any unfounded antipathy. Those who share in the antipathy, of course, abstain from the action. And unless the antipathy were so general as to include almost the whole of the society, it would lose its injurious effect. Besides, all the injury which can be done to the individuals against whom truth would in this manner operate injuriously, would be, to make them abstain from the acts which were thus condemned.
Another thing to be considered is, that the whole of the evil arising from the exercise of truth is dependent upon an accidental circumstance, capable of being removed; upon a mental disease, requiring to be cured, which, the legislature ought to be constantly endeavouring to cure, and toward the cure of which truth is likely to operate as the most effectual of all expedients. If any considerable inconvenience were experienced from exposure to unfounded antipathies, in consequence of the publication of truth, the groundlessness of these antipathies could not fail in this case to be so often canvassed, and made to appear, that at last it would become familiar to the multitude, and the antipathies would expire.
It clearly, therefore, appears, that, if the cases in which the declaration of truth would expose to unfounded prejudices could not be clearly defined, and separated from the cases in which the declaration would be salutary, the rule of permitting truth ought to be universal. But, though we perceive, that, to a considerable extent, there are cases, in respect to which it would be vain to hope for agreement in drawing the line of distinction between what is hurtful and what is not, we are persuaded that principles might be laid down in which all would agree, and which would serve to mark out certain cases for exception with sufficient exactness. If any such cases could be separated, either of actions which, though injurious to nobody, excited antipathies, or of facts, as those of birth, for which, though a man was in no respect worse, he might be regarded as worse; the exercise of truth, with regard to them, might, on the express ground that they were actions innoxious, or facts which ought to be of no importance in the estimate of human worth, be forbidden, when injurious, under the penalty of at least making reparation for all the injury of which it had been the cause.
[* ]In the description which follows of that violation of rights which is most liable to be committed by the press, and of the mode in which it ought to be treated, the developements presented in the article Jurisprudence are understood to be present to the mind of the reader; if they are not, the very brief exposition here given will not be understood.