John Milton’s Defence of Freedom of the Press

Milton (1608-1674) is perhaps known best for his epic poem
But he also gained international acclaim because of a pamphlet he
wrote in 1644, in which Milton argued against censorship and defended
free speech and freedom of the press. This was the
A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing
It was named after a speech written by the Athenian called Isocrates.
Like Isocrates Milton didn’t want his speech to be delivered orally
in public; rather, he explicitly wanted his views to be distributed
in pamphlet form as a way to undermine the censorship he was arguing
against. In it he makes the following demand: “
me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to
conscience, above all liberties.” For Milton, like many other
liberals to follow in his tradition, free expression was a basic and
unalterable liberty, one which should be prioritised over all others.
This outlook would be re-stated in the First Amendment of the

had a personal grudge towards the government at the time since it had
previously censored his other works, especially political tracts
which defended controversial laws – such as the right to divorce.
The Areopagitica was an attack directed against the Licensing Order
Act of 1643, which demanded that an author’s work be approved by the
government in order for it to be published. The details of the Act
include pre-publication licensing; the search, seizure and
destruction of any books ‘offensive’ to the government; and the
arrest and imprisonment of any ‘offensive’ writers, printers and

argument was that to pre-censor authors, that is, to censor them
before they’ve even published their work, was nothing short of state
control of thought. I’m sure if Milton were alive today he would be
equally horrified by the censorship in North Korea. The degree of
censorship in North Korea is so high that there is no real freedom of
the press. All media outlets are exclusively owned and controlled by
the North Korean government and the purpose of the media is to
promote the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim
Jong-un. Radio and television sets can be bought in North Korea, but
they can only broadcast government programs – it is a criminal
offence to receive other radio or television broadcasts. George
Orwell, like Milton, would also be turning in his grave.

Milton championed the freedom of the press, this does not mean that
the press should be completely free. He realised that some means of
accountability was necessary to ensure that libel was prevented.
Milton asserted that this could be done by putting up safeguards
which meant that printers and authors take legal responsibility of
the content they publish. Modern English law today makes clear that
any statements that allegedly defame a person causing a loss in their
profession, can be brought to court.

defamation laws are among the strictest in the Western world and put
too high a burden of proof on the defendant. It seems likely that
Milton would have disagreed with some of the controversial libel
cases that have been brought to court in the past. For example, in
2008 the British author Simon Singh wrote an article in the Guardian
which attacked the practice of chiropractors. He argued that this
alternative medicine had no basis in science and had no evidence to
support it. This resulted in Singh being sued for libel by the
British Chiropractic Association (BCA), but the charges were dropped
in 2010.

charity Sense About Science drew attention to this case, saying that
libel laws should be kept out of scientific disputes. Scientific
disputes rely on subjecting claims to scrutiny and it seems that the
current libel laws in this country can be an obstacle to this
necessary method of science. The Wall Street Journal noted how the
Singh case was a good example of how British libel law “chills free
speech”. Although Milton recognised the importance of libel law,
I’m sure he would not be satisfied with modern British libel law,
which appear to be too strict.

argues in the Areopagitica that “books are not absolutely dead
things” – they contain their own kind of life and potency. He goes
on to say that a person “who kills a man kills a reasonable
creature…but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
What Milton is saying here is that books are extremely valuable
objects. They contain ideas – whether they be right, wrong,
offensive, unorthodox – which allow us to use our reasoning
faculties and improve ourselves as human beings. John Stuart Mill
made some very similar claims in On Liberty,
when he said that if ideas are not allowed to circulate, then our
reason will be stifled – and we will inch closer to being ignorant
and dogmatic.

stresses that even false opinions should be expressed and published.
As he says,
her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a
free and open encounter?” I couldn’t agree more with this idea.
Although opinions which are ignorant, hateful, racist, offensive or
just purely non-factual, they must be open to the public if they are
to be refuted. If it was illegal to express or publish views which
support creationism, then there would be little opportunity for the
public to listen or read the arguments against it. Mill made a
similar point in On Liberty when he said that false opinions are
useful, because discussing them gives us more of a reason to justify
correct opinions. Pointing out the flaws and lack of evidence for
creationism gives us more reason to suppose that evolutionary theory
is the best and most consistent theory we have. Both Milton and Mill
cared deeply about what was true and asserted that we can only arrive
at truth by allowing free speech and freedom of the press.

influence can be seen in the current laws we have. UK citizens have a
negative right (that is, the state is not to prevent me from
expressing or publishing opinions) under the common law. The Human
Rights Act (1998) is meant to further promote the rights in the
European Convention on Human Rights, with article 10 of the
convention containing a guarantee of freedom of expression. However,
there are quite a few exceptions to this freedom. Some of these
exceptions are justified, such as restrictions on speech which
incites terrorism or incites violence, distress, harassment or causes
a breach of the peace.

sure Milton would have agreed with these restrictions, since they aim
to prevent harm. But it is not clear whether Milton would have seen
some other of the exceptions as justified, including: insulting
words, obscenity, racial hatred, imagining the death of the monarch
and corrupting public morals. On the subject of obscenity and
offensiveness, it is obvious that what is offensive to one person is
not to another. Milton argues that if we start controlling ideas we
find to be distasteful, we will give the state a power which it is
not entitled to, leading to much greater controls over our lives. In
his own words: “
we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must
regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to


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