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A History from Socrates to Social Media,” and Milton’s Curse

He graciously accepted my request to write a post about the book.

While it may seem odd and insensitive to list a phenomena that hampers free speech after John Milton (an English poet), the phenomenon is not surprising. Milton published Areopagitica in 1644, his famous appeal for freedom of expression. Areopagitica is a treasure trove of admirable writing. Few writers can match its brilliance. Milton’s main argument was that censorship caused “the discouragement and the stopping of truth”, not by limiting and blunting what we already know, but also by impeding or cropping new discoveries, both religious and civil. His famous quote, which has not lost any of its power over time, is “Give me liberty to know and to utter freely according to my conscience, above every liberties.”

On closer examination, Milton’s defence of freedom speech was filled with significant buts and buts. Milton stated that he meant not to tolerate popery and open superstition when referring to press freedom. As it exterminates all religions or civil supremacies it should also be exterminated. Nor did Milton wish to provide shelter to ideas that were “impious or evil … against faith or manners.” Milton was able to redress the situation if “mischievous” and “libellous books were still printed. He used “the fire, and the executioner”, i.e. book burnings, as his remedy. His main goal was to promote open discussion about “those neighbouring differing or rather indifferences”, that would see various Reformed Protestant sects at each others throats. This meant not equal and free speech for everyone. Milton also applauded the 1650 enactment a broad law against “Atheistical and Blasphemous Opinions”. Milton joined eventually the army dictatorship of Richard Cromwell’s corps of censors. That Milton—the scourge of censors—would become a licensor himself (if apparently a lenient one) is indeed one of the great ironies of the history of free speech, though Milton is hardly alone when it comes double standards on censorship.

The history of free speech might have gone a bit smoother if Milton’s far-reaching free speech ideas had been more prominent. These people were open to universal tolerance, press freedom and equality before the law. They also supported representative government. Richard Overton (William Walwyn) and John Lilburne were three of the most famous Levellers. Between them, they published almost 250 pamphlets from 1645 to 1649—many of which were written from prison when their ideals and notions about liberty of conscience became too radical to tolerate. Lilburne frequently appealed to “free-born Englishmen” when he spoke of the Levellers’ language of natural and individual rights.

William Walwyn, who complained about Parliament and ministers a few months prior to Milton’s Areopagitica being published, wrote that Milton was not ready for publication.

All men must stop speaking; prohibit printing any material that may be needed to defend and vindicate. If any matter is attempted or published without authorization or licence, then Pursuivants will be fined and imprisoned.

Overton asked that in 1646 the government release the Presses imprisoned, so all people’s understandings could be easier informed. It is hard to know exactly where Levellers set the boundaries for free speech and tolerance. While they were not of the same mind or completely consistent at times, it was clear that they weren’t in agreement. The Levellers were severely attacked in 1649. They claimed that censorship “ever brought about a tyranny”; their censorship prevented men from speaking while removing them of all their freedoms. Therefore, “the least restriction upon the press” should be lifted as the people can’t enjoy freedom if they are prevented from speaking, writing, printing and publishing freely. In arguing that “more speech is better than bad speech”, the Levellers explicitly supported the principled argument and the defense of freedoms of friends and foes, as well as arguing against the temptation to apply the law selectively and end up “overwhelming” your liberties. The Levellers could not be trusted to always follow the rules. In 1649—with their lives and liberties under severe threat – the Levellers adopted a more pragmatic stance and opened the door for excluding Catholics refusing to reject Papal supremacy from holding public office. Lilburne even advocated for stricter licensing royalist books to prevent “the ruinee of the Kingdome.”

However, Levellers were well ahead of their times (and Milton), and Professor Michael Kent Curtis stated that “echoes from Leveller doctrines exist in America.” Madison’s Draft of the First Amendment, which would eventually become the First Amendment, combines the notion that egalitarian speech is required for sovereign peoples to govern themselves with the belief that free speech should be the guardian and protector of all individual liberties.

Even America’s founder generation wasn’t immune to Milton’s Curse. This was proven by 1798’s adoption of the Sedition Act. In 1765 John Adams had attacked the Stamp Act as a British design to “strip us in a great measure of the means of knowledge, by loading the Press…with restraints and duties.” But he felt the Sedition Act was “justified” by the Constitution, signed it into Law, and used his power to authorize multiple prosecutions of his opponents, including editors of newspapers. However, it wasn’t only Federalist supporters of the Sedition Act who would compromise freedom speech to gain political advantage.

Thomas Jefferson was a strong critic of the Sedition Act. After winning the 1800 Presidential Election he struck an unifying, bipartisan note with his inaugural speech.

We all are republicans, and we all are federalists. If any of us would like to abolish the Union or alter its republican forms, they should be allowed to remain undisturbed monuments of safety where error of opinion can be tolerated and reason permitted to fight it.

As Adams did before him, Jefferson soon became the subject of newspapers’ smear campaigns. He wrote in private that Federalist newspapers had impeded press freedom by “pushing it’s licenciousness and it is lying to such an extent of prostitution that it deprives it of all credit”. He argued that only a few prosecutions of the highest-ranking offenders would be able to restore the integrity of the presses.

It is important to remember that even Jefferson wasn’t immune from Milton’s Curse. This reminds us to think twice before we believe otherwise. This For example, it is necessary for restrictions to be placed on hate speech, misinformation online, education indoctrination, and the many other reasons that might be invoked to support our human nature towards intolerance.

Mchangama also is the coauthor of a paper that we accepted recently at Journal of Free Speech Law. This article was blind peer reviewed and should be published within the next few weeks.