Liberty of the Press

Of the term “Liberty of the Press

from the American Citizen, October 20, 1806.

THE writer of this remembers a remark made to him by Mr. Jefferson concerning the English Newspapers, which at that time, 1787, while Mr. Jefferson was Minister at Paris, were most vulgarly abusive. The remark applies with equal force to the federal papers of America. The remark was, that “the licentiousness of the press produces the same effect as the restraint of the press was intended to do if the restraint, said he, was to prevent things being told, and the licentiousness of the press prevents things being believed when they are told.” We have in this State an evidence of the truth of this remark. The number of federal papers in the city and state of New-York, are more than five to one to the number of republican papers, yet the majority of the elections go always against the federal papers, which is demonstrative evidence that the licentiousness of those papers is destitute of credit.

Whoever has made observations on the characters of nations will find it generally true that the manners of a nation, or of a party, can be better ascertained from the character of its press than from any other public circumstance. If its press is licentious, its manners are not good. Nobody believes a common liar, or a common defamer.

Nothing is more common with Printers, especially of Newspapers, than the continual cry of the liberty of the press, as if because they are Printers they are to have more privileges than other people. As the term liberty of the press is adopted in this country without being understood, I will state the origin of it and shew what it means. The term comes from England, and the case was as follows.

Prior to what is in England called the revolution, which was in 1688, no work could be published in that country without first obtaining the permission of an officer appointed by the government for inspecting works intended for publication. The same was the case in France, except that in France there were forty who were called censors, and in England there was but one, called Imprimateur.

At the revolution the office of Imprimateur was abolished and as works could then be published without first obtaining the permission of the government officer, the press was, in consequence of that abolition, said to be free, and it was from this circumstance that the term liberty of the press arose. The press, which is a tongue to the eye, was then put exactly in the case of the human tongue. A man does not ask liberty before hand to say something he has a mind to say, but he becomes answerable afterwards for the atrocities he may utter. In like manner, if a man makes the press utter atrocious things he becomes as answerable for them as if he had uttered them by word of mouth. Mr. Jefferson has said in his inaugural speech, that “error of opinion might be tolerated, when reason was left free to combat it.” This is sound philosophy in cases of error. But there is a difference between error and licentiousness.

Some lawyers in defending their clients (for the generality of lawyers like Swiss soldiers will fight on either side) have often given their opinion of what they defined the liberty of the press to be. One said it was this, another said it was that, and so on, according to the case they were pleading. Now these men ought to have known that the term, liberty of the press arose from a FACT, the abolition of the office of Imprimateur, and that opinion has nothing to do in the case. The term refers to the fact of printing free from prior restraint, and not at all to the matter printed whether good or bad. The public at large, or in case of prosecution, a jury of the country will be judges of the matter.