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LIBERTY OF THE PRESS.
MOST well informed men seem agreed that works of some size and extent ought to be published free from any previous censure or controul.
Their composition requiring a length of time, the ability of purchasing them requiring some property; time and attention being also required to read and understand them, they are not liable to excite popular commotions, which might be the consequence of a rapid sale of violent decla
But Pamphlets, essays, and particularly periodical publications, are written in a short time, they are circulated at a moderate expense, and having an immediate action upon the public mind, may be thought more dangerous in their general effect.
Now, I hope on the contrary to be able to prove, that it is safer, even for the interest of Government, to suffer even writings of that description, to be freely published without being previously submitted to the controul of a censor.
This liberty is not inconsistent with the power of checking any violence to which the press may be instrumental. The law should hold out penalties to calumny, insurrection, and in short to all abuses that may result from the free communication of political opinions. Such laws so far from injuring liberty are its surest protection: without their safeguard, liberty itself could no longer exist.
I meant at first to confine my observations to periodical journals, leaving other essays and pamphlets out of the question: as they obviously must make their own apology with more effect than any thing I could say in their favor,
Surely there can be no wish to bring back a system of espionage, which must exceed the power, commit the dignity, and frustrate the just intentions of a wise and enlightened government.
Much less can it be supposed that such a system would be kept up by severe measures, which bearing no proportion to the degrees of guilt in the offenders, would be revolting to all sense and justice, and might excite a general interest for the sufferers, let their conduct have been ever so improper.
It is equally impossible, now that the continental system is set aside, and that France is no longer inaccessible to the inhabitants of other European nations, but that writings not allowed to be published in France, would be imported from other countries.
The civilised world is again like one family, numerous travellers are already crowding into France to share the liberty, the safety, and all other advantages, which are now restored to this nation.
Are they to be stopped on the frontiers, are travellers to be stripped of their property? are the books which they have brought for their own reading to be secured?
Without such precautions all prohibitions are useless. Books thus introduced will be at the service of the friends of the proprietors, and will circulate among their friends: and personal interest will soon raise speculations upon the curiosity of the public. Hawkers of prohibited pamphlets will slip into France, under the costume of tra vellers. Secret connections will be formed by the trade. Whenever an opportunity for making considerable profit offers itself, industry lays hold of it, and under any government which is not completely tyrannical industry is invincible.
It would be in vain to hope that pamphlets would be less circulated, because they could only be introduced occasionally, and consequently in smaller number, and at a greater expense. The mild temper of the present government, and the action of the various political bodies, which have recovered a noble and necessary independency, will soon improve the circumstances of every class. Those who are fond of reading, will rather pay an advanced price, than give up their favorite habit of satisfying their curiosity. So that the very prosperity of the country will counteract prohibitory measures, though the government should continue to enforce them.
The continued exertions of the Government to recover the country from the mischief occasioned by our long agitation, will by degrees bring back individual property nearer to the situation in which it was in 1788. But at that period, and in spite of all the watchfulness of the police, France was overrun with forbidden pamphlets. Why should not the same be the case now? Certainly after the gracious promises of our Sovereign, the intended restrictions upon the press will not be more severe than they were, when Belisarius was prohibited, and when the abbé Raynal
was ordered to be taken into custody. And if the old Government, with its accustomed arbitrary authority, could not succeed in its endeavours, surely our constitutional Government, with a scrupulous observation of the engagements it has contracted, could not effect by infinitely lesser means, what unlimited power was unable to do.
Equally vain would be the expectation that forbidden pamphlets printed abroad would not reach the country soon enough to answer their mischievous purpose.
There would be secret printing offices in the centre of the metropolis, as there were formerly; they could only be suppressed by Robespierre and Buonaparte: but under a mild and limited authority, they would be restored. Moderate penalties would be ineffectual: excessive severity would be impracticable.
I might with confidence appeal to those who for the last two months have been entrusted with that department, which is made so intricate, when it might be so plain; I would appeal to those depositories of authority, for their opinion, if their situation allowed them to speak openly.
They would all say, from their experience, that with respect to the liberty of the Press, you must either allow it to take place, or shoot those who use it without your leave. And I am not afraid to say, that even had we no constitutional charter, our actual government (and it is an homage which I pay to it with pleasure) would always rather allow such liberty than restrain it by capital punishments.
It is well worth observing that laws enacted to prevent offences, are after all only laws which punish them. You forbid printing without a previous licence. But if a writer bids defiance to your prohibition, how can you prevent him? You must station guards round all the printing offices which are known, and besides make domiciliary visits to discover NO. XI. Pam: VOL. VI. O
those which are secret. This would be a political inquisition with all its energy. On the other hand, if you do not adopt such measures, you no longer prevent printing, you only punish it. And you punish a very different crime; that of printing without leave; when you ought only to punish printing improper works. But in the mean time the work is published, and the prohibition is ineffectual. Your great argument always fails; you say there must be a previous censure, for if there were only penal laws, the author may be punished, but the mischief is done. But if the writer does not submit to your censure, if he prints clandestinely, he may be punished for the breach of your law; but the mischief is done. You will have two offences to punish instead of one: but you have not prevented his writing. If you think that authors will not care for the punishment inflicted upon them for their writings, how much less will they mind the penalty threatened upon the mode of publication without licence.
You even counteract your own intentions.
An author wishing to publish his opinions is induced to be guilty of a single act of disobedience to the law; but if he could have published them without such restraint, he might not have exceeded the bounds of moderation in his writing, but now, having no farther risk to run, he may venture beyond just bounds to give his work a greater celebrity; and also because he is soured and hurried by the danger he affects to despise. The writer who has taken upon himself to bid defiance to the laws, by emancipating himself from the restraint imposed upon him, has no further inducement to pay a due regard to them, in their other enactments. The author who writes openly, is always more prudent than he who is concealed. He who writes in Paris is much more guarded than he who is fled to Amsterdam, or to Neufchatel.