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Very early history about the 1st Amendment

The American commitment to freedom of speech and press is the more remarkable because it emerged from – political origins that were highly restrictive and repressive. The colonists who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century came from an England where it was extraordinary dangerous to utter a thought that differed from the “official truth.” The state defined what was allowable in politics and, perhaps even more rigorously, in religion.

Repression of this particular freedom was accomplished by two different devices. The first was preventative: a licensing system for all publications. This of course included the Bible (#1 best-selling book every year, year after year) as well as pamphlets, shipping schedules, and any other printed document meant for public use.

We are sure you’ve imagined this system of requiring everyone to purchase a license first, would certainly create an economy in itself; furthermore, the system created valuable printing monopolies, as well as preventing the publication of some rather unorthodox or unconventional opinions.

This system was the proclamation of King Henry VIII in 1538 A.D. and without any follow-up on those bureaucrats they did tend to be arbitrary. Actually the system was in a horrific mess insofar as upon purchase of the license there were no policies or rules as to when one would receive their hard work in return. Often times it could take up to a decade – or however long the bureaucrats took in making a decision pursuant to how important it was.

When Parliament overthrew King Charles I in the civil war of the 1640s, it abolished the royal licensing system. However, it was only three years later when Parliament enacted another, vaguely similar licensing system perhaps to show power, or certainly to gain a source of revenue.

The second repressive device may have been even more intimidating. It was the law of seditious libel, which made it a crime to publish anything that showed disrespect of the state, church, or politically held offices. Therefore, just about every institution was gripped by fear of producing something that could be disrespectful or something that could be the culprit of social chaos.

Here is an example of how this second repressive device was: If one were to publish something critical – a charge resulting from an official taking a bribe – it did one no good to prove that the statement was true. Truth was no defense to a charge of seditious libel. The crime lay reducing public respect for the official, so a truthful criticism might be worse than a true one. Punishment for the crime of seditious libel was the death penalty carried out by the lingering horror of being hanged, drawn, and quartered.

Curiously, from out viewpoint today, critics of the licensing system often did not object to the rigors of the punishment. “It is of greatest concernment in the Church and Commonwealth,” John Milton wrote, “to have a vigilant eye how books demean themselves as well as men: and therefore to confine, imprison, and do sharpest justice on them as malefactors.”

And finally, Sir William Blackstone was the leading authority on the common law, including seditious libel. Like Milton, he drew a sharp distinction between it and prior restraint by licensing. “Where blasphemous, immoral, and treasonable seditious or scandalous libels are punished by the English law,” which was pretty serious about death penalty cases when it came down to disrespecting military commanders, politicians, public workers, and others in general. Now, just think of today’s freedom of speech.

This is part 1 of a short series reviewing the history and biography of the 1st Amendment — freedom of speech.

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