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Liberty of the Press


Public Discussion

Jeremy Bentham

As the ``Advertisement'' indicates, these letters were originally intended for publication in a Madrid newspaper during the time (Fall, 1820) of the debate in the Spanish parliament (the Cortes) upon the bill discussed in the letters. In the event the letters were published in England in 1821, it being felt that they contained matter of general interest in defending press freedom and the liberty of public discussion.

The two most important things in these letters, it seems to me, are (1) the statement of policy as regards the freedom of the press in criticizing government officials (in Letter 1), and (2) the radical statement of policy about sufficient freedom of public political association to permit effective resistance to government authority (in Letter 2). The former statement is similar to, and thus anticipates by 140 years, the doctrine of the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times vs. Sullivan (1964), in providing that there should be allowed no libel actions at civil law by public officials for criticism of their official actions, save in cases of outright lying or ``reckless disregard of the truth'', and no criminal prosecutions for anything said in the press about the government or its officials. This would seem to be about as far as one can go to get rid of prosecutions for seditious libel (``slander of the state''). The second statement is remarkable in that Bentham is considering representative governments and yet proposes, as a check on misrule, constitutional arrangements which make possible active resistance to government actions or outright insurrection.

A Note on the Text

This text was scanned in from Volume II of the Bowring Edition of Bentham's Works.

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Last modified: Wed Feb 13 16:54:05 CST 2002