John Milton wrote the “speech” Aeropagitica in 1644, as a revolution commenced, in response to a new law that all books had to be “licensed” before printing and circulation. This law did not intend to raise revenues, but sought the control of ideas and criticisms of local and national governments in Great Britain. The mass media was effectively controlled. And I, for one, wouldn’t want to face a British judge in 1644 for even a minor crime. They had not learned how to simply slap one’s wrist back then—hanging being a favorite sentence.
Milton’s speech became one of the original and best defenses of “freedom of speech” in Western civilization, inspiring extensions of its ideas by John Locke in the next century, the US founding fathers in the 1790s, and a reaffirmation by John Stuart Mill in the 1800s. Milton, of course, published his speech without a license. Parliament ignored it, but the muse who inspired him understood that Milton wrote for a larger and later audience.
Have you ever wondered why the first amendment includes freedom of religion AND freedom of speech? No, the founding fathers weren’t just saving paper.
My thesis is this: The idea of “freedom of speech” was established to protect the interests of a community (an ostensibly Christian community) against internal and external threats to its survival. Learning a bit of history about “freedom of speech” can help us fully grasp its scope, benefits, and limits. Yes, dear reader, there are limits to free speech. Originally they involved religion. So let’s take a deeper look.
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Though writing had been around for centuries, books were rare and expensive until Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press around 1440. Prior to that, books had to be handwritten—usually by rooms full of monks who were tediously copying from one document to another. Only the most important works were reprinted by the gatekeepers of this media—religious, philosophical, poetical. Somebody had to pay for it; often it the church. Gutenberg changed all that!
After the 1440s, printing created the mass media of the day—books, leaflets, pamphlets, newspapers.
The spread of printing enabled the rise of literacy. As the Reformation movement grew, the ability to read the Bible was deemed important, thus churches encouraged literacy. Rates rose from 30% among British adults to over 50% after Gutenberg, and up to over 90% in colonial America.*
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As the decades passed, printing presses and printers had proliferated and now if you had a bit of money, you could pay a printer to publish your ideas—good or idiotic—on a single sheet, a pamphlet of several sheets, or a book.
John Milton explains in his work how a community is protected by freedom of the press. Internally, this freedom provides recourse for citizens against foolish laws and corrupt leaders. The citizens can go to the ruling bodies and petition for redress if a situation threatens them. Without this freedom, citizens cannot bond together sufficiently to bring any pressure. Externally, the freedom protects “truth” by allowing all the pieces of truth discovered by thinkers and scholars throughout the world to find circulation. A community and its legislators need knowledge to guide the ship of state wisely. Banning books stops this acquisition of truth and knowledge.
But Milton is not open to everyone having “freedom” of speech and press. There are some ideas that are too dangerous to the community. These people and their ideas were to be suppressed for the common good:
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I mean not tolerated popery, and open superstition, which, as it extirpates [roots out and destroys] all religions and civil supremacies, so itself should be extirpate, provided first that all charitable and compassionate means be used to win and regain the weak and the misled: that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or manners no law can possibly permit,
Thus he excludes the teachings of the church of Rome (sorry Catholics) from a right to free speech. Keep in mind the wars of England in that period against France & Spain that were motivated by papal aggression. They were afraid of the Pope and for good reason. But things change with time and war. By the 1800s John Mill included the Catholics in the community.
Milton seeks to protect freedom of speech with regard to “neighbouring differences … which, though they may be many, yet need not interrupt THE UNITY OF SPIRIT, if we could but find among us THE BOND OF PEACE.”
Areopagitica guards the “community” by allowing free thought and debate that seeks truth and knowledge, which he does not fear will interrupt “unity of spirit” or “the bond of peace” within a group.
Our own founding fathers were well acquainted with Milton’s teachings on freedom of the press. They recognized how instrumental public discourse had been to the revolution and sought to safeguard it forever. Not that they feared England any longer, but that they feared human nature and the generations to follow. They were also still quite concerned about papal designs to control the Americas as well as Anglican plans to establish the Church f England as an official American church. Both fears, whether valid or not, abound in revolutionary propaganda, hence the inclusion of religious freedom with freedom of speech.
Today, who runs the community? A corporation where the CEO has the power of
life & death employment or poverty? A tyranny? Corrupt politicians? Or a true representative government that seeks the common good of the citizens? Freedom of “speech” is the heart of such a system. The actions of government officials must happen in the light of the press, not the nighttime of media control. Otherwise, the ingredients of a crony-capitalist tyranny shuts citizens out of the legislative process and increasingly backs them into the corner by oppressive executive orders and bureaucratic regulations enforced by order-following para-military police departments.
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Several paradigm shifts in mass media occurred as technology has advanced. Printing became cheaper. Pages proliferated. Then we invented radio & TV. Yet all these new media required wealth once again, just like pre-Gutenberg publishing. More recently the internet was invented by Al Gore and the tables have temporarily turned. Now anyone may learn html coding or use WYSIWYG software, purchase server space and start publishing. Search engines would help turn up your ideas if people looked.
And so here you are, reading an essay written by an anonymous author, and reading all sorts of comments where we debate conspiracies, “truth” and impart knowledge to one another. Often we argue and throw our opinions around, just as Milton said it should be: Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.
But some can still go too far, causing the kind of disruption that threatens this tenuous community. Thus Milton would say our moderators have the right, even the duty, to “delete comments,” providing the “ignore user” function as well as outright banning of members who threaten the community.
But the “censorship” of ideas must occur after motive and character are evident. Writings were always burned after publication in ancient Greece & Rome. So, Milton would also defend the banning of people from a website after they have shown their colors: “Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libellous, the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy that man's prevention can use.” Yes, Milton suggested a bit more severity than our mods have applied.
Freedom of Speech is not a license for community destruction. When the community is threatened, the right is curtailed for self-survival.
Our politicians, activists and the media parrots are also far too quick and liberal with their application of the term “hate speech.” Hey, if you can get people believing that certain discourse is “hateful,” then of course we ought to censor it, even prosecute the originators. The term was coined after a particular series of heinous crimes, but now is slapped on anyone who sounds off an opinion contrary to those in control of the mass media. I admit that I am careful in what I write and post here (and in the university) for fear of being labeled a “hater” for my politically “incorrect” views on specific topics like banksters and political prostitutes. And when good people fear to share their reasonable opinions because they may lose their jobs, or face a lawsuit, we have indeed experienced another restriction of free speech—a restriction wrought from both the misapplication of, and selective application of the law.
Interestingly, the Bundy ranch standoff has revealed a subtle strategy of the government to restrict “free speech." I found this interesting comment in a recent article: “Agents … tasered several protesters on a road leading to the ranch after they stepped outside the designated “free speech zone.”
WTF? A designated free speech zone? A quick internet search shows this to be quite common. How ignoble! The term implies that the government upholds free speech, yet places limitations on where it is protected. This, my friend, is a dangerous precedent. At the risk of stepping down the slippery slope, I have to wonder where free speech will next be restricted? They have set a precedent in public settings. Will certain domains on the internet (like .edu) be set aside as a “free speech” zone? In fact, that is only a sideways step, not a downward one.
We have already seen DDOS attacks on our favored websites. Is this not censorship? I wonder who benefits from such censorship? We have seen paid, mercenary trolls haunting our websites, posting to infuriate us and drive away “seekers.” Another form of censorship!
Tyrants typically eat away at our freedoms incrementally, so our diligence is deserved, whether things take a turn for the worse or not.
So my friends, keep writing, keep posting, keep reading our wonderful precious metals, alternative news, and prepping websites. Let’s keep the paid trolls on the run while embracing genuine truth seekers—even if they are irritating and we disagree. We are participating on the cutting edge of the mass media. This is where inquiring minds wind up, just like I did in 2010, seeking truth. Click on the ads and patronize the supporters. Spend a little bit on annual subscriptions. Let’s keep the traffic high so those who provide the service earn more, can afford to provide internet security, and even fight legal battles as needed.
And keep stacking.
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* Historical literacy rates are open for debate, especially considering the variance between a 1st grade and a college reading level.