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Censorship and the Free Press

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Censorship and the Free Press



Opinions have always differed about the degree to which the media should be controlled by political and religious authorities, and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries witnessed persistent tension between the forces of order and liberation. Brutal punishment of wayward authors produced stirring calls for press freedom. Few contemporaries adopted entirely straightforward views on this issue, however, and many changed their views depending on their proximity to power. As a result, successive regimes continued to restrict the dissemination of news and opinion.



Milton. Areopagitica; a speech of Mr. John Milton for the liberty of unlicenc'd printing. London, 1644

As religious divisions deepened in the 1630s, Elizabethan legislation was deemed insufficiently rigorous to deal with Puritan tracts debating the affairs of church and state. A star-chamber decree targeted “seditious, schismatical or offensive” pamphlets, and “secret printing in corners.”

 

The reforms implemented by critics of Charles I’s government during 1640 and 1641 included the abolition of the Star Chamber and the removal of individual press licensers. By 1643, however, Parliament was determined to try and re-impose order in the face of an explosion in pamphleteering and journalism. One order sanctioned searches for illicit presses and the seizure of any pamphlets which were deemed scandalous either to the king or to the proceedings of Parliament. In June 1643 a roster of clerics and lawyers was established to license new publications. This enabled the punishment of wayward journalists, not least those who attacked prominent members of Parliament and peers, as well as the king.

 

These restrictions on the printing of news didn't sit well with many authors and journalists, and in a bold speech against Parliament’s attempts to re-impose censorship in 1643, poet John Milton famously argued that the authorities might as well “kill a man as kill a good book.” Milton, who himself had faced punishment for his notorious pamphlets defending the practice of divorce, bemoaned attacks upon “the people’s birthright.”

 

Aside from brief lapses in legislation, press licensing remained in force until 1695. Freethinker and polemicist Charles Blount’s religious and political tracts were publicly burned on more than one occasion. Blount sought to keep Milton’s ideas alive during the Restoration.

 

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Richard Overton. A remonstrance of many thousand citizens. London, 1646



Charles Blount. Reasons humbly offered for the liberty of unlicens'd printing. London, 1693



A decree of Starre-Chamber, concerning printing, made the eleventh day of July last past. London, 1637



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