The Supreme Court on Freedom of the Press: Decisions and Dissents

By William A. Hachten | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
FREEDOM FROM PRIOR RESTRAINT: CENSORSHIP

MUCH of the early struggle for freedom of the press in England centered around the problems of prior restraint and censorship. In an effort to control the press, the English kings, through the Licensing Act of 1662, had decreed that no pamphlet or book could be printed unless it first had been submitted to a governmental censor or licensing official and his approval obtained. Publication without a license was a criminal offense.

John Milton's Areopagitica ( 1644) was primarily an attack on such governmental power. Milton understood and even shared the concern that the printing press might be used to question the validity of state religious views and the divine right of kings, but he condemned licensing as a device for repressing free men's thoughts. His famed treatise had little impact at the time of its writing, however, and it was not until 1695 when the English House of Commons refused to extend the Licensing Act, that press freedom from prior restraint received its necessary legislative support. Gradually--and only gradually--did freedom from licensing enter the English Common Law which Blackstone summarized in his famous statement of the eighteenth-century concept of freedom of the press:

The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publication, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter

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