FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
Safety lies in knowledge of danger; not in Ignorance.
To express intellectual convictions pre-
supposes freedom to do so.
To hide a thing from the eye of inquiry is to admit an inherent weakness.
Impropriety is not in the knowledge of a bad thing, but in the existence of the thing itself.
Opinions should be expressed openly; then free thought will be able to discriminate between the true and false.
Without freedom of the press there can be no great diffusion of enlightenment.
Do we fear the contest between fact and fable? Surely we have more powerful writers of truth than of lies.
Freedom of thought, speech and the press are what stand between the people and tyranny. The people often need to be aroused to action against oppression, and the only way to reach them is through these freedoms.
Freedom of thought begets freedom of speech; freedom of speech begets freedom of assembly; freedom of assembly begets freedom of action; freedom of action begets free individuals.
A law that restricts the freedom of the press is both unjust and unconstitutional.
It is only a tyrannical individual or a despotic government that would restrict the freedom of the press.
If a man has a right to think, he has a right to speak; if he has a right to speak, he has a right to publish his thoughts.
Complete freedom of speech means the liberty to denounce or ridicule; it is not only the freedom to say something complimentary of the good, but things uncomplimentary of the bad. Liberty to oppose is as necessary as liberty to uphold.
From the beginning of the Seventeenth Century until the present there is a long line of Libertarians who by voice and pen have upheld the principle of the Freedom of the Press. Few statements in support of anything have been as unequivocal and as uncompromising as these.
In his “Areopagitica,” John Milton (1608- 74) took his stand on firm ground when he said: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
No less emphatic and clear is the declaration of another great thinker, in some respects without a peer, and certainly not within his race. That man was Benedict Spinoza (1620-77) and here are his ringing words: “Since, therefore, no one can abdicate his freedom of judgment and feeling; since every man is by indefeasible natural right the master of his own thoughts, it follows that men thinking in diverse and contradictory fashions cannot, without disastrous results, be compelled to speak only according to the dictates of the supreme power.” And again: “It is far from impossible to impose uniformity of speech, for the more rulers strive to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately are they resisted.”
Next in the chronological line of eminent thinkers who have uttered wise words on this subject is John Locke (1632-1704), and his contribution to the subject is as follows:
“Truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received, and I fear never will receive, much assistance from the power of great men, to whom she is but rarely known, and more rarely welcome. She is not taught by law nor has she any need of force to procure her entrance into the minds of men.”
The noted French philosopher, Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715-71), lent the support of his inexorable logic to the cause of a free press, and his work in that direction is one of the greatest contributions of his nation to civilization and progress. Here is an excerpt from one of his many utterances:
“There are no specious pretexts with which hypocrisy and tyranny have not colored their desire of imposing silence on men of discernment; and there is no virtuous citizen that can see in the pretexts any legitimate reason for their remaining slent …. “To limit the press is to insult the nation; to prohibit the reading of certain books is to declare the inhabitants to be either fools or slaves.
“Should we to destroy error compel it to silence? No. How, then? Let it talk on. Error, obscure of itself, is rejected by every sound understanding. If time have not given it credit, and it be not favored by government, it cannot bear the eye of examination. Reason will ultimately direct whereever it be freely exercised.”
David Hume (1711-76), the famous Scotch philosopher, pointed out clearly the value of liberty of the press in combating and controlling certain evils of a political nature, and his words are worthy of a careful perusal. This is his argument:
“It is apprehended that arbitrary power would steal in upon us, were we not careful to prevent its progress, and were there not an easy method of conveying the alarm from one end of the kingdom to another. The spirit of the people must frequently be roused, in order to curb the ambition of the court, and the dread of rousing this spirit must be employed to prevent that ambition. Nothing is so effectual to this purpose as the liberty of the press, by which all the learning, wit, and the genius of the nation may be employed on the side of freedom, and everyone be animated to its defense. As long, therefore, as the republican part of our government can maintain itself against the monarchial, it will naturally be careful to keep the press open, as of importance to its own preservation.”
In fact, the Eighteenth Century in England found a number of eminent men who stood squarely on the principle of freedom of the press, and their vindication of it has been clear and convincing. The Rt. Hon. Charles James Fox (1749-1806) has spoken so eloquently in the defence of freedom of speech and writing that it is not amiss to quote him at length:
“English freedom does not depend upon the executive government nor upon the administration of justice, nor upon anyone particular or distinct part, nor even upon forms, so much as it does on the general freedom of speech and of writing. Speech ought to be completely free. The press ought to be completely free, when any man may write and print what he pleases, though he is liable to be punished if he abuse that freedom. This is perfect freedom. If this is necessary with regard to the press, it is still more so with regard to speech. I have never heard of any danger arising to a free state from the freedom of the press or freedom of speech; so far from it, I am perfectly clear that a free state cannot exist without both.
“It is not the law that is to be found in books that constitutes – that has constituted the true principle of freedom in any country at any time. No, it is the energy, the boldness of a man’s mind which prompts him to speak, not in private, but in large and popular assemblies, that constitutes, that creates, in a state the spirit of freedom. This is the principle that gives life to liberty; without it the human character is a stranger to freedom. As a tree that is injured at the root, with the bark taken off the branches, may live for a while, and some sort of blossom may still remain, but it will soon wither, decay, and perish; so take away the freedom of speech or of writing, and the foundation of all the freedom is gone. You will then fail and be degraded and despised by all the world for your weakness and your folly in not having taken care of that which conducted you to all your fame, your greatness, your opulence and prosperity. ”
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), English social and political philosopher, contending that the difference between a free and a despotic government consisted in their attitudes toward the liberty of the press, public discussions and public association, wrote:
“In regard to a government that is free and one that is despotic, wherein is it then that the difference consists? . . . On the liberty of the press; on the security with which every man, be he of the one class or the other, may make known his complaints and remonstrances to the whole community; on the liberty of public association; on the security with which malcontents may communicate their sentiments, concert their plans, and practice every mode of opposition short of actual revolt, before the executive power can be legally justified in disturbing them.-“On Government.”
“Now for the promised test, by which, when applied to a man, it may be seen whether the government he means to give his support to is of the one sort or of the other. Put to him this question: Will you, sir, or will you not, concur in putting matters on such a footing, in respect to the liberty of the press and the liberty of public discussion, that, at the hands of the persons exercising the powers of government, a man shall have no more fear from speaking and writing against them, than from speaking and writing for them? If his answer be yes, the government he declares in favor of is an undespotic one; if his answer be no, the government he declares in favor of is a despotic one.”
“On Liberty of the Press and Public Discussions.”
Robert Hall (1764-1831), English Baptist clergyman, discoursing in 1793 on “The Liberty of the Press,” said that “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,” and then continued:
“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 nature and design of political society. When a nation forms a government, it is not wisdom but power which they place in the hands of the magistrate; from whence it follows, his concern is only with those objects which power can operate upon. . .. Truth, being supported only by evidence, when this is presented we cannot withhold our assent, and where this is wanting, no power or authority can command it ….
“Publications, like everything else that is human, are of a mixed nature, where truth is often blended with falsehood, and important hints suggested in the midst of much impertinent or pernicious matter.”
James Mill (1773-1836), English philosopher and economist, and father of John Stuart Mill, argued for equal freedom of declaring all opinions, both true and false) as follows:
“We have then arrived at the following important conclusions: That there is no safety to the people in allowing anybody to choose opinions for them; that there are no marks by which it can be decided before-hand what opinions are true and what are false; that there must, therefore, be equal freedom of declaring all opinions, both true and false; and that, when all opinions, true and false, are equally declared, the assent of the greater number, when their interests are not opposed to them, may always be expected to be given to the true. These principles, the foundation of which appears to be impregnable, suffice for the speedy determination of every practical question.”
John Stuart Mill (1806-73), English logician, economist, and social and political philosopher, discussing liberty of thought, speech and press, concludes:
“We have now recognized the necessity to the mental well-being of mankind (on which all their other well-being depends), of freedom of opinion, and freedom of the expression of opinion, on four distinct grounds; which we will now brieflly recapitulate.
“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.
“Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.
“Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, “Fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct; the dogma becoming a mere formal profession inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.”
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), English philosopher, evolutionist, sociologist, and an unswerving defender of liberty, thus reassures those who may hesitate to utter their opinions:
“Whoever hesitates to utter that which he thinks the highest truth, lest it should be too much in advance of the time, may reassure himself by looking at his acts from an impersonal point of view. Let him duly realize the fact that opinion is the agency through which character adapts external arrangements to itself-that his opinion rightly forms part of this agency-. is a unit of force, constituting, with other such units, the general power which works out social changes, and he will perceive that he may properly give full utterance to his innermost conviction, leaving it to produce what effect it may.
“It is not for nothing that he has in him these sympathies with some principles and repugnance to others. He, with all his capacities and aspirations and beliefs, is not an accident but a product of the time. He must remember that while he is a descendant of the past he is a parent of the future, and that his thoughts are as children born to him, which he may not carelessly let die. Not as adventitiousness, therefore, will the wise man regard the faith which is in him. The highest truth he sees he will fearlessly utter.
“Knowing that, let what may come of it, he is thus playing his right part in the world, knowing that if he can effect the change he aims at-well; if not-well also; though not so well.”
Thomas Cooper (1759-1839), American scientist, defending the liberty of the press, in 1830, wrote:
“The people have been told by governments and by the priesthood that the best way of arriving at truth is by hearing only one side of the question; and they have legislated and acted in conformity with this persuasion ….
“All such laws and decisions as cast a stigma of reproach or disability on any man for his opinions on theological or moral subjects, whatever they may be, are laws and decisions in favor of an alliance between church and state. They take for granted that a disposition to speak the truth fearlessly and at all hazards is a sure sign that the person in question is unworthy of belief! “Indeed, no opinion or doctrine, of whatever nature it be, or whatever be its tendency, ought to be suppressed. For it is either manifestly true, or it is manifestly false, or its truth or falsehood is dubious. Its tendency is manifestly good, or manifestly bad, or it is dubious and concealed. There are no other assignable conditions, no other functions of the problem.
“In the case of its being manifestly true, and of good tendency, there can be no dispute. Nor in the case of its being manifestly otherwise; for by the terms it can mislead nobody. If its truth or its tendency be dubious, it is clear that nothing can bring the good to light, or expose the evil, but full and free discussion. Until this takes place, a plausible fallacy may do harm; but discussion is sure to elicit the truth, and fix public opinion on a proper basis; and nothing else can do it.
“Criminality can only be predicated where there is an obstinate, unreasonable refusal to consider any kind of evidence but what exclusively supports one side of a question.
“It follows that errors of the understand ing must be treated by appeals to the understanding. That argument should be opposed by argument, and fact by fact. That fine and imprisonment are bad forms of syllogism, well calculated to irritate, but powerless for refutation. They may suppress truth, but they can never elicit it.
“Error not brought to view, but concealed; error operating not openly, but privately, may be dangerous: for it has no enemy to detect it, and nothing to fear. Publish it, oppose it, discuss it, and the vapor is dissipated before the beams of truth.”
Franklin H. Giddings, American sociologist and professor of the history of civilization in Columbia University, is the author of several volumes on sociology, government, and history. His works are conceded by scholars and students to be the highest rank. His understanding of American history and the theory of our government, and his grasp of the factors of civilization and social evolutions, pre-eminently qualify him to discuss free speech, free press, and free assembly. He says:
“Our government is based on the agreement, both tacit and implied, that the minority shall always have the rights of free speech, free press, and of free agitation, in order to convert itself, if possible, from a minority into a majority. As soon as these rights of the minority are denied, it will inevitably resort to secret meetings, conspiracies and, finally, force. In times of stress it may be extremely embarrassing for the majority to be hampered in quick, decisive action by an obstinate minority; but nevertheless, the recognition of the right of the minority is’ our sole bond of unity. For this reason, I repeat that any attempt to interfere with the rights of free speech and free press is a blow at the very foundations of our government.”
An editorial headed “To An Anxious Friend,” written by its editor, William Allen White, and published in the Emporia Gazette of July 27, 1922, won the Pulitzer prize. The friend is Henry J. Allen, then Governor of Kansas, who threatened Mr. White with jail for exercising in his newspaper the right of free expression. A railroad strike was in progress at the time. This is the prize winner:
“You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance, and I reply that you can have no wise laws nor free enforcement of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom of the people-and, alas, their folly with it. But, if there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the wisdom will survive. That is the history of the race. It is the proof of man’s kinship with God.
“You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply with the sad truth that only in time of stress is freedom of utterance in danger. No one questions it in calm days, because it is not needed. And the reverse is true also: only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed it is most vital to justice. Peace is good. But if you are interested in peace through force and without free discussion-that is to say, free utterance decently and in order-your interest in justice is slight. And peace without justice is tyranny, no matter how you may sugar-coat it with expediency. This State today is in more danger from suppression than from violence, because in the end suppression leads to violence; indeed, is the child of suppression. Whoever pleads for justice helps to keep the peace, and whoever tramples upon the plea for justice, temperately made in the name of peace, only outrages peace and kills something fine in the heart of man which God put there when He got our manhood. When that is killed, brute meets brute on each side of the line.
“So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this State will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold-by voice, by posted card, by letter or by press. Reason never has failed men. Only force and expression have made the wrecks in the world.”