Before the invention of the printing press a writing, once created, could only be physically multiplied by the highly laborious and error-prone process of manual copying out. No elaborate system of censorship and control over scribes existed, who until the 14th century were restricted to religious institutions, and their works rarely caused wider controversy. In response to the printing press, and the heresies it allowed to spread, the Roman Catholic Church moved to impose censorship. Printing allowed for multiple exact copies of a work, leading to a more rapid and widespread circulation of ideas and information (see print culture). The origins of copyright law in most European ...view middle of the document...
Title page of Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or List of Prohibited Books, (Venice 1564).
This 1688 edition of Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend (1260) was censored according to the Index Librorum Expurgatorum of 1707, which listed the specific passages of books already in circulation that required censorship.
The notion that the expression of dissent or subversive views should be tolerated, not censured or punished by law, developed alongside the rise of printing and the press. Areopagitica, published in 1644, was John Milton's response to the Parliament of England's re-introduction of government licensing of printers, hence publishers. Church authorities had previously ensured that Milton's essay on the right to divorce was refused a license for publication. In Areopagitica, published without a license, Milton made an impassioned plea for freedom of expression and toleration of falsehood, stating:
"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."
Milton's defense of freedom of expression was grounded in a Protestant worldview and he thought that the English people had the mission to work out the truth of the Reformation, which would lead to the enlightenment of all people. But Milton also articulated the main strands of future discussions about freedom of expression. By defining the scope of freedom of expression and of "harmful" speech Milton argued against the principle of pre-censorship and in favor of tolerance for a wide range of views.
As the "menace" of printing spread, governments established centralized control mechanism. The French crown repressed printing and the printer Etienne Dolet was burned at the stake in 1546. In 1557 the British Crown thought to stem the flow of seditious and heretical books by chartering the Stationers' Company. The right to print was limited to the members of that guild, and thirty years later the Star Chamber was chartered to curtail the "greate enormities and abuses" of "dyvers contentyous and disorderlye persons professinge the arte or mystere of pryntinge or selling of books." The right to print was restricted to two universities and to the 21 existing printers in the city of London, which had 53 printing presses. As the British crown took control of type founding in 1637 printers fled to the Netherlands. Confrontation with authority made printers radical and rebellious, with 800 authors, printers and book dealers being incarcerated in the Bastille in Paris before it was stormed in 1789.
A succession of English thinkers was at the forefront of early discussion on a right to freedom of expression, among them John Milton (1608â€“74) and John Locke (1632â€“1704). Locke established the individual as the unit of value and the bearer of rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. However Locke's ideas evolved primarily around the concept of the right to seek salvation for...