John Milton (1608-1674) is perhaps known best for his epic poem Paradise Lost. But he also gained international acclaim because of a pamphlet he wrote in 1644, in which Milton argued against censorship and defended free speech and freedom of the press. This was the Areopagitica: A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing. It was named after a speech written by the Athenian called Isocrates. Like Isocrates, Milton didn’t want his speech to be delivered orally in public; rather, he explicitly wanted his views to be distributed in pamphlet form as a way to undermine the censorship he was arguing against.
In it he makes the following demand: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” For Milton, like many other liberals to follow in his tradition, free expression was a basic and unalterable liberty, one which should be prioritised over all others. This outlook would be re-stated in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Milton had a personal grudge towards the government at the time since it had previously censored his other works, especially political tracts which defended controversial laws – such as the right to a divorce. The Areopagitica was an attack directed against the Licensing Order Act of 1643, which demanded that an author’s work be approved by the government in order for it to be published. The details of the Act include: pre-publication licensing; the search, seizure and destruction of any books ‘offensive’ to the government; and the arrest and imprisonment of any ‘offensive’ writers, printers and publishers.
Milton’s argument was that to pre-censor authors, that is, to censor them before they’ve even published their work, was nothing short of state control of thought. I’m sure if Milton were alive today he would be equally horrified by the censorship in North Korea. The degree of censorship in North Korea is so high that there is no real freedom of the press. All media outlets are exclusively owned and controlled by the North Korean government and the purpose of the media is to promote the personality cult of Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un. Radio and television sets can be bought in North Korea, but they can only broadcast government programs – it is a criminal offence to receive other radio or television broadcasts. George Orwell, like Milton, would also be turning in his grave.
Although Milton championed the freedom of the press, this does not mean that the press should be completely free. He realised that some means of accountability was necessary to ensure that libel was prevented. Milton asserted that this could be done by putting up safeguards which meant that printers and authors take legal responsibility of the content they publish. Modern English law today makes clear that any statements that allegedly defame a person, causing a loss in their profession, can be brought to court.
However, UK defamation laws are among the strictest in the Western world and put too high a burden of proof on the defendant. It seems likely that Milton would have disagreed with some of the controversial libel cases that have been brought to court in the past. For example, in 2008 the British author Simon Singh wrote an article in the Guardian which attacked the practice of chiropractors. He argued that this alternative medicine had no basis in science and had no evidence to support it. This resulted in Singh being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA), but the charges were dropped in 2010.
The charity Sense About Science drew attention to this case, saying that libel laws should be kept out of scientific disputes. Scientific disputes rely on subjecting claims to scrutiny and it seems that the current libel laws in this country can be an obstacle to this necessary method of science. The Wall Street Journal noted how the Singh case was a good example of how British libel law “chills free speech”. Although Milton recognised the importance of libel law, I’m sure he would not be satisfied with modern British libel law, which appears to be too strict.
Milton argues in the Areopagitica that “books are not absolutely dead things” – they contain their own kind of life and potency. He goes on to say that a person “who kills a man kills a reasonable creature…but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.” What Milton is saying here is that books are extremely valuable objects. They contain ideas – whether they be right, wrong, offensive, unorthodox – which allow us to use our reasoning faculties and improve ourselves as human beings. John Stuart Mill made some very similar claims in On Liberty, when he said that if ideas are not allowed to circulate, then our reason will be stifled – and we will inch closer to being ignorant and dogmatic.
Milton stresses that even false opinions should be expressed and published. As he says, “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” I couldn’t agree more with this idea. Although there are opinions which are ignorant, hateful, racist, offensive or just purely non-factual, they must be open to the public if they are to be refuted. If it was illegal to express or publish views which support creationism, then there would be little opportunity for the public to read or listen to the arguments against it.
Mill made a similar point in On Liberty when he said that false opinions are useful, because discussing them gives us more of a reason to justify correct opinions. Pointing out the flaws and lack of evidence for creationism gives us more reason to suppose that evolutionary theory is the best and most consistent theory we have. Both Milton and Mill cared deeply about what was true and asserted that we can only arrive at truth by allowing free speech and freedom of the press.
Milton’s influence can be seen in the current laws we have. UK citizens have a negative right (that is, the state is not to prevent me from expressing or publishing opinions) under the common law. The Human Rights Act (1998) is meant to further promote the rights in the European Convention on Human Rights, with article 10 of the convention containing a guarantee of freedom of expression. However, there are quite a few exceptions to this freedom. Some of these exceptions are justified, such as restrictions on speech which incites terrorism or incites violence, distress, harassment or causes a breach of the peace.
I’m sure Milton would have agreed with these restrictions, since they aim to prevent harm. But it is not clear whether Milton would have seen some of the other exceptions, including: insulting words, obscenity, racial hatred, imagining the death of the monarch and corrupting public morals. On the subject of obscenity and offensiveness, it is obvious that what is offensive to one person is not to another. Milton argues that if we start controlling ideas we find to be distasteful, we will give the state a power which it is not entitled to, leading to much greater controls over our lives. In his own words: “If we think to regulate printing, thereby to rectify manners, we must regulate all recreations and pastimes, all that is delightful to man.”