The Origins of the Concept of Freedom of the Press

Manchester University Press

This chapter investigates the origins of concepts of press freedom in the anglophone world. It charts the ways in which arguments about freedom of speech in the English Parliament combined with practices and theories of petitioning to underwrite novel claims that press licensing should be temporarily loosened or suspended during the time of Parliament’s sitting. These claims for the relaxation of censorship during ‘Parliament-time’ were first extensively canvassed during the distempered parliaments of the 1620s. After 1640, and particularly after the convention of the Long Parliament in November of that year, rudimentary claims regarding the suspension of press licensing in ‘Parliament-time’ became more elaborate, and were articulated with escalating assertiveness, particularly by militant parliamentarians, and especially by so-called ‘independents’. During the English civil war of the 1640s, these formulations mutated into more general demands for the limitation or even abolition of press controls. In their most robust form, such arguments proposed that censorship and other forms of press regulation should be relaxed not merely in the ‘Parliament-time’ but at all times and under all just governments. This evolution represents an important development in the long, highly contested process whereby print controls were abandoned, as new assumptions and practices of press freedom and ‘freedom of speech’ gained purchase in the English-speaking world.