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Benjamin Constant and the Freedom of the Press (1815)

In France one of the leading theorists of the principle of free speech was Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) who had been called upon by Napoleon during his brief return to power between March-July 1815 (The Hundred Days) to draw up a new constitution with more constitutional limits on government power. Constant’s ideas were elaborated in a book he wrote at the time Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments (1815) which included chapters on freedom of thought and religion. A typical passage reads:

If you once grant the need to repress the expression of opinion, either the State will have to act judicially or the government will have to arrogate to itself police powers which free it from recourse to judicial means. In the first case the laws will be eluded. Nothing is easier than presenting an opinion in such variegated guises that a precisely defined law cannot touch it. In the second case, by authorizing the government to deal ruthlessly with whatever opinions there may be, you are giving it the right to interpret thought, to make inductions, in a nutshell to reason and to put its reasoning in the place of the facts which ought to be the sole basis for government counteraction. This is to establish despotism with a free hand. Which opinion cannot draw down a punishment on its author? You give the government a free hand for evildoing, provided that it is careful to engage in evil thinking. You will never escape from this circle. The men to whom you entrust the right to judge opinions are quite as susceptible as others to being misled or corrupted, and the arbitrary power which you will have invested in them can be used against the most necessary truths as well as the most fatal errors.

If you once grant the need to repress the expression of opinion, either the State will have to act judicially or the government will have to arrogate to itself police powers which free it from recourse to judicial means. In the first case the laws will be eluded. Nothing is easier than presenting an opinion in such variegated guises that a precisely defined law cannot touch it. In the second case, by authorizing the government to deal ruthlessly with whatever opinions there may be, you are giving it the right to interpret thought, to make inductions, in a nutshell to reason and to put its reasoning in the place of the facts which ought to be the sole basis for government counteraction. This is to establish despotism with a free hand. Which opinion cannot draw down a punishment on its author? You give the government a free hand for evildoing, provided that it is careful to engage in evil thinking. You will never escape from this circle. The men to whom you entrust the right to judge opinions are quite as susceptible as others to being misled or corrupted, and the arbitrary power which you will have invested in them can be used against the most necessary truths as well as the most fatal errors.

When one considers only one side of moral and political questions, it is easy to draw a terrible picture of the abuse of our rights. But when one looks at these questions from an overall point of view, the picture of the ills which government power occasions by limiting these rights seems to me no less frightening.

What, indeed, is the outcome of all attacks made on freedom of the pen? They embitter against the government all those writers possessed of that spirit of independence inseparable from talent, who are forced to have recourse to indirect and perfidious allusions. They necessitate the circulation of clandestine and therefore all the more dangerous texts. They feed the public greed for anecdotes, personal remarks, and seditious principles. They give calumny the appearance, always an interesting one, of courage. In sum, they attach far too much importance to the works about to be proscribed.

In the absence of government intervention, published sedition, immorality, and calumny would scarcely make more impact at the end of a given period of complete freedom than spoken or handwritten calumny, immorality, or sedition

About this Quotation:

After the strict and heavy handed censorship of the Napoleonic Empire there was a brief period of press freedom during the First Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy under King Louis XVIII (April 1814 – March 1815). The restored Bourbon monarchy declared freedom of the press on 4 June 1814 which led to the creation of a full spectrum of political debate and argument among the 20 new titles which emerged. However, by October 1814 new censorship laws had been passed in order to control political criticism of the new regime. All publications less than 20 pages long (so most papers and journals) had to have their material approved by government officials before they could be published. These laws were made even more restrictive in November 1815. There was another liberalizaton of the censorship laws in late 1818 under the ministry of Dessoles-Decazes with the Serre press laws but this was short lived as the assassination of the Duke de Berry in February 1820 led to a severe crackdown on press liberties. In the wake of this many journals were forced to close, including the liberal La Minerve française for which Benjamin Constant wrote as well as the successor to Le Censeur of Comte and Dunoyer, Le Censeur européen. During this period classical liberals on both sides of the channel fought for an expansion of press freedom (Constant in France and James Mill in England should be mentioned). Their arguments were that educated people should have the right to know what politicians and government officials were doing with their tax money (so the proceedings of parliament should be openly published in newspapers), that corruption and nepotism by senior figures should be exposed and condemned, and that the interests of the middle and working classes should be expressed and defended in the press and that governments should take these interests into account when passing laws.

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