Fighting Pre-publication Censorship

England's History With Freedom of the Press

Previously, we took a look at the historical basis for John Milton's publication of his Areopagitica, as well as the perceptions Milton had about the rights of the individual. This article will take a closer look at the arguments proposed by the Areopagitica, as well as placing these arguments in relation to the counter-arguments of the time period (the 17th Century in England). Finally, there will be some coverage of how Milton's ideas are used in today's world, specifically how they pertain to court rulings in the United States.

Areopagitica did not persuade the Presbyterians in Parliament to invalidate the pre-publication censorship component of the Licensing Order of 1643. Freedom of the press was not achieved in England until 1695. However, he did receive a lot of praise for his efforts. Also, Milton and the Presbyterians had together abolished the Star Chamber under Charles I, but now that they were not being oppressed and they held the power, the Presbyterians in Parliament no longer held to their defense of freedom of the press. Through the Licensing Order of 1643, they were set on silencing the more radical Protestants and Independents, as well as works supporting the King which had begun to appear in London. Milton's treatise is his response to that licensing order, which clearly came at a time when he and the Parliament were already at odds.

In addition, by the time Milton wrote Areopagitica he had by that time unsuccessfully challenged Parliament in other areas of privilege and right. Milton's writings on divorce were simply too radical for his time, and so, it turned out, was the Areopagitica. Milton’s did anticipate the arguments of later advocates of freedom of the press by relating the concept of free will and choice to individual expression and right. Milton's treatise "laid the foundations for thought that would come after and express itself in such authors as John Locke and John Stuart Mill.”

Another example of Areopagitica's influence around the same time frame in history is in that of the United States Constitution, which includes the prohibition against prior restraint, or pre-publication censorship. This prohibition is necessary because, as Milton recognized in Areopagitica, to threaten censorship prior to publication would have a chilling effect on expression and speech, or in Milton’s view, it would interfere with the pursuit of truth as it relates to a providential plan. Clearly, prior restraint would also severely hamper most forms of political expression not deemed acceptable by a ruling party.

Again, it is important to note that in Milton's work, he argued that there was a high potential of abuse and neglect in the drafting of the Licensing Order. Milton wrote that licensing is “a the dignity of Learning.” Milton argued that many authors would be likely to produce a written work with genuinely good intentions, but then have that writing barred from publication and censored a priori because a subjective, arbitrary judgment by the licenser.

To see just how relevant Areopagitica's words are in today's world, we should also consider how Milton's ideas are interpreted in respect to modern laws and cultural norms.

Other Theorists and Milton

How Does He Compare?

When it comes to his ideas, much of Milton's thoughts are echoed by other theorists of his day, as well as governing bodies at this current point in history. Many of Milton’s thoughts and words are still with us today. A quotation from Areopagitica ("A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life”) is displayed over the entrance to the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library, showing that Milton is remembered as a political thinker and literary champion.

The Supreme Court of the United States has, in interpreting the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, referred to Areopagitica to explain the Amendment's protections, citing it by name in four cases. The most famous of these is in the landmark case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, wherein the Court cited Areopagitica to explain the inherent value of false statements, or learning through negative example. The Court also cited Milton to explain the dangers of prior restraint in Times Film Corp. v. City of Chicago et al. Later, Justice Douglas, concurring in Eisenstadt, Sheriff v. Baird cited the pamphlet to support striking down restrictions on lecturing about birth control. Finally, Justice Black cited Areopagitica when, in Communist Party of the United States v. Subversive Activities Control Board, he dissented from the Court's upholding of restrictions on the Communist Party of the United States against a free speech and free association challenge. In each instance, Milton is cited by the Court's members to support a broad and expansive protection of free speech and association.

Particularly from that last example, it is clear that the United States of America has suffered some missteps in expanding and protecting the political and creative freedoms of its citizenry. Fortunately, for the most part, citizens in the United States enjoy freedom from prior restraints on personal expression and publication. In many ways, this is close to Milton's ideal some three hundred fifty years ago of Great Britain being open to truth and understanding, with a government that did not monopolize knowledge and information. In conclusion, Milton's opinion that licensing as a requirement before publication would hinder discovery of truth by the government’s prejudice and custom. The status quo cannot exist eternally, and there will always be more truth to be found that we do not yet know of. Additionally, Milton added a religious tinge to his argument, thinking that licensing could potentially hinder God’s plans, since it gives the licenser the power to silence others. While this religious aspect may not appeal to modern secularists, it emphasizes the powerful core beliefs and values that shaped Milton's views on the subject of freedom of expression.