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The printing press, invented in the 15th century, provided more literature more cheaply for more people: it broke the state and church’s stranglehold on learning, beginning a centuries-long battle between freedom of speech and the power of the state. With a royal charter on press regulation having been agreed this week, I thought I’d look at the history of this.

Stars in their mouths

You’ll remember Charles I’s quarrel with Parliament from last month’s blog. One reason for this was his use of the Star Chamber, a court which was more about realising Charles’s own personal wishes than fulfilling the interests of justice. When Parliament came to power, it began by abolishing the Star Chamber which had been used to silence dissenting publications. However, Parliament quickly realised that often things promised in opposition do not make life easy in government. Faced with growing criticism of themselves, the Parliament passed a law forcing all authors to have a licence approving their work before it could be published.

Thomas Sprat and his lean words

Areopagitica_bridwellAngry with Parliament’s attempts to gag publishers, John Milton, poet and former Parliamentarian spin doctor, published Areopagitica, a trenchant defence of freedom of speech. For Milton, the battle between opposing arguments is precisely what leads to truth:

Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?

But not all agreed. Thomas Sprat blamed the horrors of the Civil War on precisely this disagreement. For him, there could be no truth when people used rhetoric:

Who can behold, without Indignation, how many mists and uncertainties, these specious Tropes and Figures have brought on our Knowledge?

In fact, Spratt suggested all metaphors, unnecessary adjectives and any complex language should be banned and that a new, simpler language replace it.

“If this is law it would be found in our books…”

Almost a century after the Glorious Revolution, press journalism was flourishing. But despite this, the Government felt uncomfortable with the criticism it was receiving. The landmark case of Entick v Carrington concerned the Home Secretary’s order to seize the papers of a radical publisher called John Entick who violently criticised the Government. The judge, Lord Camden, found the Government’s seizure of Entick’s possessions to be illegal – but not because of any breach of Entick’s right to freedom of speech. Rather, the actions were illegal because the Government’s agents had committed trespass as they had no legal authority to take his possessions. The case articulates a very important principle: people can do whatever they want, so long as it breaks no law; the state can do nothing, unless it is allowed by law.

Life after Leveson

A quick glance at the Leveson Report reveals the same concerns today as Milton and Sprat had: how do you balance the freedom of enquiry necessary for understanding issues with the shortcomings of language and persuasion? The debate about statutory regulation of the press owes much to Entick v Carrington: the state can only compel the press to publish or not publish if there is an explicit law saying so, and many are nervous about doing this. Thus the recently agreed royal charter is an attempt to ‘nudge’ the presses into being more like Sprat than Entick. What do you think Milton would say?

Next week, we’ll have a look how language works in the law itself: from Mockingbirds to mischief.

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