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Free Speech and Press

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Free speech and free press mean the same thing: the right to voice any beliefs or ideas, even unpopular ones -- orally or on paper -- without fear of being punished for it. Sometimes it's called freedom of expression. Through history, various advances slowly won this right, which lies at the very heart of democracy. It's all about the right to think freely, safe from arrest or prosecution.

Some ancient Greeks and Romans first proposed tolerance of differing viewpoints. In 1501, Pope Alexander XI of the notorious Borgias ordered censorship of unwanted ideas. The church's famed Index Expurgatorius, listing banned books, was launched in 1559 and continued for centuries, eventually forbidding believers to read works of Rene Descartes, Galileo, David Hume, John Locke, Daniel Defoe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and many other thinkers. In France, printer-scholar Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in 1546 for his unorthodox writings. England's infamous Star Chamber, which tortured and mutilated nonconformists, also censored printed material.

In 1644, poet John Milton's Aeropagitica appeal to Parliament opposed censorship of writings. "Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties," he wrote.

Years ago, a former dean of West Virginia State University, Edwin Hoffman, wrote a superb book titled Pathways to Freedom, outlining several breakthroughs of democracy. He gave this example:

In the 1730s, after England seized New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York, a new British governor was sent to the colony. He turned out to be a greedy, arrogant tyrant seeking to enrich himself. Many New Yorkers turned against him. A few started a little newspaper, The New York Weekly Journal, to express their concerns. It was printed by a German immigrant, John Peter Zenger.

The paper didn't dare criticize the governor openly, but it published vague warnings without using his name. Nonetheless, the governor ordered Zenger arrested on charges of inflaming the people against the crown. The printer was locked in a cell for nine months, but continued publishing his weekly by dictating to his wife and friends through a hole in the door.

When his case finally came to trial, an aging Quaker lawyer from Philadelphia eloquently argued that people should have a right to criticize authorities. To the surprise of nearly everyone, including the defense, jurors quickly declared Zenger innocent, even though he had admitted printing the criticisms. New York townspeople hailed him as a hero.

It was a small landmark in the struggle for freedom of speech and press, which later were locked into the First Amendment of America's Bill of Rights and subsequent democracy codes.

Free speech and press are bedrock principles for liberals, and have been for centuries. Crusading newspaper columnist Heywood Broun (1888-1939) once said: "Free speech is about as good a cause as the world has ever known."

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841-1935) said: "The very aim of our institutions is just this: that we may think what we like and say what we think."

Yale University President and historian Alfred Whitney Griswold (1906-1963) wrote in Essays on Education: "Books won't stay banned". Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost."

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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