Free Press

The Revolution in Freedoms of Press and Speech


The title of legal historian Wendell Bird's book The Revolution in Freedoms of Press and Speech refers to a dramatic change in the dominant understanding of press freedom in Britain and the United States. By the mid-1760s, Bird shows through a painstaking examination of previously ignored material, the majority position—the one that would be reflected in the First Amendment—was that people had a right to criticize the government without going to jail for it.

While that conclusion may not seem surprising, it contradicts the prevailing academic view, which says hardly anyone objected in principle to prosecutions for seditious libel until a decade or so after the Bill of Rights was ratified. Until the partisan conflict provoked by the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, according to this view, Americans thought freedom of the press meant only freedom from prior restraint, not freedom from punishment if what you printed happened to offend powerful people.

In Bird's persuasive telling, that narrow conception of press freedom was concocted by the eminent British jurists William Blackstone and Lord Chief Justice Mansfield, who presented as settled law what was by then an outdated, minority position. The story highlights the ever-present danger of conflating the establishment's self-interested opinions with the general understanding of what people should be free to do.

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  2. Somehow, I have a feeling that if the founders realized “freedom of the press” was going to be seen as a blank check for near media monopolies to act as gatekeepers against what information the public sees, rather than as a protection for dissident pamphleteers against having their presses busted up by the authorities, they would have gone into a bit more detail.

    If I was forced to give up one constitutional right, I’d ditch freedom of the press in a heartbeat.

    1. Except freedom of the press also protects your right to write what you want and put it out into the world. And I don’t see how not having freedom of the press is going to help the media monopoly situation when these companies are working with the people in power. How do you think that would play out? I would expect that media companies would become more an arm of the state if they were more regulated.

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    2. “forced”? My ass. You don’t get to ditch MY right to freedom of the press.

      1. I think he is confusing the term ‘press’ and what it implies.

        I agree that the special rights of an established media should be eliminated. CNN has no more or no less right to the press then Bob Bobson, the weird guy on the corner of Chestnut Street.

        CNN is the “Press”, not the press.

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    3. All speculation about what they would have thought had they seen…is silly, because the only reasonable way for them to have seen what eventually came would’ve been for them to have lived thru the intervening time. Who knows how people’s thoughts might change with experience over such a period…and who cares?

  3. I, for one, would like to see more hangings for seditious speech that degrades the people’s rights.
    Like Clapper openly advocating falsely using the 25th amendment to force Trump out prior to Jan 20. like him or hate him, the voters selected him for a full term. Advocating for his removal under false pretenses solely for political reasons is an attack on 62 million voters. A short drop and a sudden stop would seem to be a classic method of inhibiting seditious talk.

    1. “I, for one, would like to see more hangings for seditious speech that degrades the people’s rights.”

      And, no doubt, if MikeP2 were asked to decide what is, and what is not, seditious speech (decide who should live, and who should die), MikeP2 would be MOST pleased to SERVE us all, by personally founding the center, the vanguard of the proletariat, of the New MikeDickPatorshit! Death as punishment for seditious speech! And opposition to the MikeDickPatorshit is CLEARLY seditious speech! What a lovely, creative, brand-new idea, shall we try it? What could possibly go wrong with it?

      All Hail the Shining, Brand-New MikeDickPatorshit!!!

      1. Fuck off, Sqrlsy.

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      2. your childish and moronic rants just aren’t funny anymore.

        There is a line between speech and sedition. The founders understood that and we, sadly, have forgotten it.

        The first amendment’s intent was to clarify the premise of public discussion and disagreement without fear of reprisals. But this was all based on the premise of construction criticism, not calls for insurrection or revolution. At no point in history was speech that called for attack or replacement of the government considered permissible, because it is a direct call to take the rights away from fellow citizens.
        It’s fine to say ” hey potus, you suck and you’re doing everything wrong, and let me tell you why”
        It is not fine to say “let’s get this guy out of here before his legal term is up and here’s how we do it.”, because that directly deprives the supporters of their rights to a representative government.

        1. And the remedy for someone actively attempting to extrajudicially deny the rights of ~65 million fellow citizens to their chosen representative government? Let’s give it just 1 day in jail per count…so 65 million days incarceration. how’s that for a sentence if you abhor hanging?

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    2. What could possibly go wrong?

      1. more responsible behavior from those shouting in the public space?

        more constructive speech and less seditious rants promoting the denial of rights of others?

        is that wrong?

        1. “…more responsible behavior…” and “… more constructive speech and less seditious rants …” are indeed, what is called for! MikeP2, at the end of the day, the ONLY person that YOU can control, long-term, is YOU! Yes, you can put a gun (or other weapon) to others, and control them… As long as you hold that gun! Walk away, and they go back to doing what they want to do! (Unless you have PERSUADED them instead of COERCED them. Speech works MUCH better than guns, for this purpose). That is called “freedom”!

          MikeP2, YOU could start, and show us the way, by NOT ranting in public writing-spaces, about your VIOLENT, POWER-HUNGRY CONTROL FANTASIES about KILLING other people for their SPEECH! Which is what you just did!

          Hypocrite-physician, heal thyself!

  4. What do we call the current revolution where a free press is actively censoring its own speech and that of others?

    1. We call that, Sqrlsy’s mom = Tulpa is lying as usual!

      By Tulpa-logic, if I refuse to spend $10,000 (of MY fuckin’ money!) to put up a billboard full of Tulpa lies, then I am “censoring” the Tulpa-Stupid!

      The Tulptatorshit wants to nationalize the ownership of OTHER peoples’ web sites, and tell them what to do! And then call that “freedom” and “non-censorship”! I call it what it is… Tulpa-shit from the would be Tulpatatorshit!

      1. Amen.

        Their goddam property, their goddam bulletin board, their goddam web forum, their goddam choice. Nobody else gets a say, except to not participate.

        For those who think the media giants have gotten too big, blame the government for all its regulations which are sooo much more expensive for small startups who might challenge the established players. Wanting the original criminal, the government, to then commit the further crime of breaking up the giants, is compounding the government crime.

  5. Of course, you know that Wendell Bird is a well-known crackpot right-wing extremist racist white-supremacist supporter of the Euro-hetero-colonialist patriarchy, right? No one should be allowed to speak his vile name, let alone read his vile books.

    1. Yes, we should flip Bird the bird, and burn his books! I have heard that Bird is an absurd nerd, AND that Bird’s bird is heavier than a duck, and so THERE YOU GO! Burn not only Bird’s books, but Bird’s bird, and then Bird himself! And then we build a hollow wooden badger, and then…

  6. Either everyone at Reason is a sleazy propagandist, or Reason editors (per instructions from Reason financier Koch) continue to censor/prevent its reporters from reporting about Joe Biden’s corruption, Hunter Biden’s laptop and its tens of thousands of e-mails and other salacious stuff (that proves the laptop was Hunter’s), and Jim and Hunter Biden’s financially lucrative deals with foreign companies solely because Joe was VP and/or was planning to run for president in 2020.

    The news media must begin to heal thyself (regardless of the first amendment) to regain even a little bit of public trust.

    Unfortunately, it appears the news media continues to insist upon destroying what little credibility it still has with objective, truthful and honest humans.

    1. Well, at least the news media is honest enough to tell us about the machinations of the centerpiece of the New Vanguard of the Proletariat, which would be the Trumpster Himself, who lusts after becoming Der TrumpfenFuhrer now, in reality as well as in name!
      What Trump may be plotting: This might be a momentary tantrum; it may well be something more sinister

      From there (imported below), please note #9…

      9. Wield the threat of mob violence. Trump has continued to rile up his most extreme supporters. In some cases, this has meant only protesting, which is certainly their right. But Trump’s supporters often carry weapons, and the president is keen to embrace thuggery.

      End import… SQRLSY comments: You Proud Boys, etc., as led by the Stolen-IP 4Chan-Pepe-the-Frog and Steve Bannon as your generals, are now ready to stop merely standing back and standing by, and are now ready to do your worst? You WILL go down in flames, enemies of democracy and peaceful transfers of power!

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  8. jeebus cripes you’re gonna write about freedom of the press while you sit on fraud for the censors.

  9. Historically, conflicts over the freedom of the press weren’t between the entire media establishment and a monocle-wearing censor – but between the government *and its establishment media cheerleaders* one the one hand and various dissident – even cranky – media outlets, on the other hand.

    Sometimes we get a Pentagon Papers case where an establishment media outlet is in the government’s cross hairs, but more likely it’s the dissident broadcasters in the *Red Lion* case whose suppression was cheerlead by the media establishment (Fairness Doctrine! Who could be against fairness?).


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