FREE SPEECH HISTORY TIMELINE
Dive into a timeline covering the subjects of Clear and Present Danger. The timeline will expand as we travel through the history of free speech.
Free speech history
Episode XV: Paper-bullets and the forgotten martyrs of radical free speech
Episode 15 returns to Europe and formative events in 17th Century England, where a mostly forgotten group of radicals demand a written constitution guaranteeing free speech, liberty of conscience, and democracy. But who are the Levellers? What is the historical context of their radical demands and why are they crushed by their former allies?
1643: Licensing Order
In 1641, Parliament abolishes the Star Chamber and ends the Star Chamber Decree of 1637. But parliament is not interested in stopping censorship: It simply replaces royal censorship with parliamentary censorship. Two years later, parliament issues the Licensing Order, enforcing pre-publication censorship.
The order causes Milton to write his Areopagitica.
1644: John Milton’s Areopagitica
John Milton’s Areopagitica is an articulate and passionate attack on pre-publication censorship. The text is published in 1644 as a response to the Licensing Ordinance from the previous year, and framed as a speech to Parliament.
Milton argues that truth is only found when conflicting ideas meet and readers are exposed to bad ideas: “When complaints are freely heard, deeply consider’d and speedily reform’d, then is the utmost bound of civill liberty attain’d, that wise men looke for.”
The text has a limited impact on the Long Parliament, but a big influence on thinkers in the 18th century.
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
– John Milton, Areopagitica (1644)
1651: Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan
In his masterwork, the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes collects a number of arguments against freedom of the press. In the recently ended civil war, he has experienced the dangerous potential of books. To keep peace and prevent civil war, the ‘sovereign’ should have absolute power to censor dangerous opinions.
“… it is annexed to the sovereignty to be judge of what opinions and doctrines are averse, and what conducing to peace; and consequently, on what occasions, how far, and what men are to be trusted withal in speaking to multitudes of people; and who shall examine the doctrines of all books before they be published. For the actions of men proceed from their opinions, and in the well governing of opinions consisteth the well governing of men’s actions in order to their peace and concord. And though in matter of doctrine nothing to be regarded but the truth, yet this is not repugnant to regulating of the same by peace. For doctrine repugnant to peace can no more be true, than peace and concord can be against the law of nature. It is true that in a Commonwealth, where by the negligence or unskillfulness of governors and teachers false doctrines are by time generally received, the contrary truths may be generally offensive: yet the most sudden and rough bustling in of a new truth that can be does never break the peace, but only sometimes awake the war. For those men that are so remissly governed that they dare take up arms to defend or introduce an opinion are still in war; and their condition, not peace, but only a cessation of arms for fear of one another; and they live, as it were, in the precincts of battle continually. It belonged therefore to him that hath the sovereign power to be judge, or constitute all judges of opinions and doctrines, as a thing necessary to peace; thereby to prevent discord and civil war.”
– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651) p. 164
1662: The Licensing of the Press Act
The English Parliament issues “the Licensing of the Press Act” in 1662, two years after the restoration of Charles II. It bans the printing, selling and importation of “heretical seditious schismatical or offensive Bookes or Pamphlets” anywhere in the British Empire:
“… no person or persons whatsoever shall presume to print or cause to be printed either within this Realm of England or any other His Majesties Dominions or in the parts beyond the Seas any heretical seditious schismatical or offensive Bookes or Pamphlets wherein any Doctrine or Opinion shall be asserted or maintained which is contrary to Christian Faith or the Doctrine or Discipline of the Church of England or which shall or may tend or be to the scandall of Religion or the Church or the Government or Governors of the Church State or Common wealth or of any Corporation or particular person or persons whatsoever nor shall import publish sell or dispose any such Booke or Books or Pamphlets nor shall cause or procure any such to be published or put to sale or to be bound stitched or sowed togeather.”
– The Licensing of the Press Act (1662)
1415: The Portuguese Empire
The Portuguese conquer Ceuta in Morocco in 1415, turning the first sod in a soon-to-be global empire. They colonise Guinea-Bissau in 1474, Brazil in 1500, Mozambique in 1501, Goa in 1510, Malacca in 1511, Macau in 1557, Nagasaki in 1570 and Angola in 1575. Everywhere they go, they spread the Catholic faith.
1492: The Spanish Empire
Columbus stumbles on the American continent in 1492. A generation later, Spanish conquistadors subjugate the Aztecs, the Mayas and the Incas. Before long, Spain’s vast American empire stretches from New Mexico in the North to Argentina in the South.
Everywhere they go, the Spanish bring Catholic missionaries: 10 million native Americans are converted before 1550. The Franciscan missionaries raze native temples, confiscate sacred images and ban traditional games and dances. Women are instructed to cover their naked bodies, and chastity and monogamy are enforced by the whip. In the words of a Franciscan missionary, conversion has to be “reinforced by the fear and respect which the Indians have for the Spaniards.”
1536: The Portuguese Inquisition
Man about to be burnt at the stake in Goa (Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, c. 1797, Public Domain)
The Portuguese Inquisition is launched by papal bull in May 1536. Five years later, king João III extends the Inquisition to the cover the whole Portuguese Empire. Until 1821, the Inquisition investigates more than 50,000 trials and executes around 2,000. The most serious crimes include Judaism, Lutheranism, Islam, heretical opinions, witchcraft and bigamy.
An independent tribunal is set up in Goa in 1560: The massive institution covers all the Eastern colonies from Sofala on Africa‘s East Coast to Malacca in Malaysia. Brazil is under the jurisdiction of the central tribunal in Lisbon.
1570: The Spanish Inquisition in America
In 1570, the Spanish Inquisition opens two independent tribunals in America: One in Mexico City (New Spain) and one in Lima (Peru). A third tribunal opens in Cartagena (Columbia) in 1611. By 1700, the tribunal in Lima has investigated 1176 cases and convicted 46 to death. The tribunal in Mexico City has investigated 950 cases and convicted 59 to death. The most frequently prosecuted crimes are heresies and blasphemies, closely followed by Judaism. Protestantism and Islam are also illegal.
Sancho de Aldana is convicted of blasphemy in 1572. He is sentenced to declare his crimes in public, naked to the waist, with a gag in his mouth and a candle in his hand. He is then paraded through the streets of Mexico City on a mule before receiving 100 lashes and being kicked out of Mexico for four years.
1571: Censorship in Spanish America
America’s first printing office opens in Mexico City in 1539. The Church keeps printers on a tight leash: Novels are forbidden all together and a strict index of forbidden books is enforced.
In 1571, Mexico’s new Inquisitor General launches a massive book purge – even the Franciscans are caught with illegal books in their libraries.
Episode XVIII: Colonial Dissent – Blasphemy, Libel and Tolerance in 17th Century America
In 17th Century colonial America, criticizing the government, officials or the laws is punishable as seditious libel. It can result in the cropping of ears, whippings, boring of the tongue and jail time. Religious speech is also tightly controlled: Blasphemy is punishable by death in several colonies and religious dissenters such as Quakers are viciously persecuted in Puritan New England.
But despite the harsh climate of the 17th century, the boundaries of political speech and religious tolerance are significantly expanded.
1611: Dale’s laws
Dale’s Laws, 1612
The English establish their first American colony in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. In 1611, Virginia’s first governor Thomas Dale issues a long list of offenses known as “Dale’s laws“. The laws mandate capital punishment for blasphemy, heresy, idolatry, witchcraft and consulting with witches. It is even punishable by death to worship God in a molten or graven image.
1641: The Massachusetts Body of Liberties
The Puritans establish England’s second colony in Plymouth, New England, in 1620. Their persecution in England is a major motivation behind the migration. But once they settle in New England, the Puritans don’t show any tolerance for blasphemers or religious minorities like Catholics, Anglicans, Quakers, Baptists and Jews.
In 1631, Phillip Radcliffe is sentenced to have his ears cut off and be banished from the colony for accusing the church of Salem of being founded by the devil.
In 1641, the colony of Massachusetts issues the Body of Liberties. It bans blasphemy and adultery:
“If any man shall blaspheme the name of God, the Father, the sonne or holy ghost, with direct, expresse, presoumptous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in like manner, he shall be put to death.” – the Massachusetts Body of Liberties
Episode XX: The Seeds of Enlightenment
In 1685, the Sun King Louis XIV revokes the Edict of Nantes and initiates a policy of religious persecution of French Protestants. In England, the Catholic James II assumes the throne to the horror of the Protestant majority in Parliament. From their exiles in the Dutch Republic, the French philosopher Pierre Bayle writes his groundbreaking defense of religious tolerance “Commentaire Philosophique”, and John Locke the original Latin version of his Letter Concerning Toleration. In this episode, we trace the seeds of the Enlightenment covering events in France, the Dutch Republic, and England.
1670: Spinoza’s Tractatus theologico-politicus
Baruch Spinoza c. 1665 (Public Domain)
In 1670, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza publishes his controversial Tractatus theologico-politicus anonymously. The book argues for libertas philosophandi – the “freedom to philosophize” – and reads the Bible with a critical eye.
“In a Free Commonwealth it should be lawful for every Man to think what he will, and speak what he thinks”
– Baruch Spinoza: Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670)
The book is too controversial, even for the tolerant Dutch. Spinoza’s patron Jan de Witt is assassinated in 1672. The same year, a viral anonymous pamphlet calls the Tractatus a “book forged in hell by the renegade Jew together with the Devil”.
1623-1683: Algernon Sidney
Algernon Sidney (Public Domain)
Algernon Sidney pens his anti-monarchical Discourses Concerning Government during the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-81. It is published posthumously in 1698 and has a tremendous influence on the radical Whigs and the founding fathers of America.
Sidney is executed for an alleged plot against Charles II in 1683. Just before the execution, he delivers a speech on the scaffold:
“… we live in an age that maketh truth pass for treason; I dare not say anything contrary unto it, and the ears of those that are about me will probably be found too tender to hear it. My trial and condemnation sufficiently evidence this.”
– Algernon Sidney on the scaffold
1685: The Edict of Fontainebleau / The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes
The ‘sun king’ Louis XIV, Europe’s most powerful man. Portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1702 (Public Domain)
Louis XIV of France issues the Edict of Fontainebleau in October 1685. The edict revokes the Edict of Nantes from 1598, and rolls back the Protestant Huguenots’ right to worship without persecution. Tens of thousands flee to England, the Dutch Republic and the American colonies.