Imagining Press Freedom and
Limits in the Enlightenment
To God, would I maintain that men might insolently spread satire and calumny
against their superiors or their equals.
—Denis Diderot, “Libelles,” Encyclopédie, 1765
On December 27, 1788, Louis XVI’s Director General of Finances, Jacques Necker, announced the agenda for the upcoming meeting of the Estates-General. Among the many reforms to be discussed, Necker included press freedom, in these terms: “Your Majesty is impatient to receive the opinions of the EstatesGeneral concerning the just measure of freedom that the press should be accorded for works or the publicity of works concerning public administration, government, or any topic of public concern.”1 Approved by the king, the report was printed up and distributed throughout France. With little more than four months to go before the meeting, the government was turning over the question of press freedom to the nation for reflection.
But the floodgates had already burst open. The monarchy’s attempt to abolish the parlements the previous May provoked a torrent of unauthorized pamphlets. On July 5, 1788, when Louis tried to resolve the crisis by agreeing to summon the Estates-General to discuss reforms, it was believed that he suspended censorship, and the outpour continued.2 But an explosion of print and temporary reprieve from censorship did not amount to legitimate freedom. As Necker saw it, the task ahead was to set new legal and regulatory parameters for the publishing industry.