S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
The most capital advantage an enlightened people can enjoy is the liberty of discussing every subject which can fall within the compass of the human mind: while this remains, freedom will flourish; but should it be lost or impaired, its principles will neither be well understood nor long retained. To render the magistrate a judge of truth, and engage his authority in the suppression of opinions, shows an inattention to the design and nature of political society.
Robert Hall: Apology for the Freedom of the Press.
It is surely just that every one should have a right to examine those measures by which the happiness of all may be affected. The control of the public mind over the conduct of ministers, exerted through the medium of the press, has been regarded by the best writers both in our country and on the continent as the main support of our liberties. While this remains we cannot be enslaved; when it is impaired or diminished we shall soon cease to be free.
He published about the same time his Areopagitica, a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing. The danger of such unbounded liberty, and the danger of bounding it, have produced a problem in the science of government, which human understanding seems hitherto unable to solve. If nothing may be published but what civil authority shall have previously approved, power must always be the standard of truth; if every dreamer of innovations may propagate his projects, there can be no settlement; if every murmurer at government may diffuse discontent, there can be no peace; and if every sceptic in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion. The remedy against these evils is to punish the authors; for it is yet allowed that every society may punish, though not prevent, the publication of opinions which that society shall think pernicious; but this punishment, though it may crush the author, promotes the book; and it seems not more reasonable to leave the right of printing unrestrained because writers may be afterwards censured than it would be to sleep with doors unbolted because by our laws we can hang a thief.
I am far from adopting the creed of my honourable and learned friend the Attorney General, that if we were less learned we should be better men. I hold, on the contrary, that the diffusion of learning, by the liberty of the press, is necessary to public liberty and public morality. Like all the great and powerful nations that ever existed, we are tending towards effeminacy. What then would become of us without the press? Not to speak of the rational and elegant amusements which it affords, we owe to it all the spirit which remains in the nation. Were an imprimatur clapped upon it, and a licenser appointed, we should soon come to the last stage of barbarism. We should be worse than Turks and infidels,the setting of the sun of science being much more gloomy and dismal than the dark hour which precedes its rise. Let us then guard the liberty of the press as watchfully as the dragon did the Hesperian fruit. Next to the privileges of this house and the rights of juries, it is the main prop of the Constitution. Nay, without it I fear the other two would prove very ineffectual. Though it be sometimes attended with inconveniences, would you abolish it? According to this reasoning, what would become of the greatest blessings of society? None of them come pure and unmixed.
Lord Loughborough (Earl of Rosslyn): Speech in House of Commons, 16 Parl. Hist. 1294.
The emancipation of the press produced a great and salutary change. The best and wisest men in the ranks of the opposition now assumed an office which had hitherto been abandoned to the unprincipled or the hot-headed. Tracts against the government were written in a style not misbecoming statesmen and gentlemen, and even the compositions of the lower and fiercer class of malecontents became somewhat less brutal and less ribald than formerly.
Some weak men had imagined that religion and morality stood in need of the protection of the licenser. The event signally proved that they were in error. In truth, the censorship had scarcely put any restraint on licentiousness or profaneness. The Paradise Lost had narrowly escaped mutilation: for the Paradise Lost was the work of a man whose politics were hateful to the government. But Ethereges She Would If She Could, Wycherleys Country Wife, Drydens Translations from the Fourth Book of Lucretius, obtained the Imprimatur without difficulty: for Etherege, Wycherley, and Dryden were courtiers. From the day on which the emancipation of our literature was accomplished, the purification of our literature began. That purification was effected, not by the intervention of senates or magistrates, but by the opinion of the great body of educated Englishmen, before whom good and evil were set, and who were left free to make their choice. During a hundred and sixty years the liberty of our press has been constantly becoming more and more entire; and during those hundred and sixty years the restraint imposed on writers by the general feeling of readers has been constantly becoming more and more strict. At length even that class of works in which it was formerly thought that a voluptuous imagination was privileged to disport itself, love songs, comedies, novels, have become more decorous than the sermons of the seventeenth century. At this day foreigners, who dare not print a word reflecting on the government under which they live, are at a loss to understand how it happens that the freest press in Europe is the most prudish.
Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay: History of England, ch. xxi.
If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man. No music must be heard, no song be set or sung, but what is grave and doric. There must be licensing dancers, that no gesture, motion, or deportment be taught our youth, but what by their allowance shall be thought honest; for such Plato was provided of. It will ask more than the work of twenty licensers to examine all the lutes, the violins, and the guitars in every house: they must not be suffered to prattle as they do, but must be licensed what they may say. And who shall silence all the airs and madrigals that whisper softness in chambers? The windows also, and the balconies, must be thought on; there are shrewd books with dangerous frontispieces, set to sale: who shall prohibit these? Shall twenty licensers? The villages also must have their visitors to inquire what lectures the bagpipe and the rebec reads, even to the ballatry and the gamat of every municipal fiddler: for these are the countrymans Arcadias and his Monte Mayors.
Who shall be the rectors of our daily rioting? Who shall regulate all the mixed conversation of our youth, male and female together, as is the fashion of this country? How can a man teach with authority, which is the life of teaching; how can he be a doctor in his book, as he ought to be, or else had better be silent, whereas all he teaches, all he delivers, is but under the tuition, under the correction, of his patriarchal licenser, to blot or alter what precisely accords not with the hide-bound humour which he calls his judgment?
John Milton: Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing: To the Parliament of England.