On this day in 1644: John Milton’s intervention in debates over freedom of the press

Today’s ‘on this day’ article for Parliament Week focuses on the publication of Milton’s famous tract, Areopagitica, in which he calls on parliament not to restrict the freedom of the press during the English Civil War. As Dr Vivienne Larminie explains, press censorship had been a controversial issue in the seventeenth century and was also difficult for the Long Parliament. Having presided over the abolition of the courts which punished those who used print to criticise or challenge Charles I’s politics, parliament had appeared to favour a freer press. However, the Long Parliament later established specialist licensers to inspect texts before publication. This prompted Milton to publish the Areopagitica. To read all about it, see Dr Larminie’s article here.

Once again, this issue resonates in today’s political climate and for today’s parliament. Next week, Lord Leveson is due to publish his report on press freedom, and whether or not he advocates a new system of statutory regulation for the press is likely to be the most controversial aspect of his report. Unfortunately, Milton may not be a great deal of help in his deliberations. Despite Milton’s passionate defence of press freedom, and his eloquent appeal to the Long Parliament to not ‘suppress this flowery crop of knowledge and new light sprung up’ (to hear Dr Larminie read this extract from the Areopagitica, listen here: 1072824-extract-from-milton-s-areopagitica), still Milton placed his own limits on what was suitable for publication. For example, Milton saw no need to tolerate pro-Catholic tracts in England.

The complex and difficult questions of press freedoms, licensing and regulation were no less awkward for those in the seventeenth century as they are for Lord Leveson today, even if the content of the controversial publications by the press has changed dramatically.


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