Mr. Trump’s Twitter Tantrum

As Mr. Trump attacks social media, let’s revisit a 17th century argument that inspired 18th century revolutionaries.

John Milton wrote Areopagitica; A speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England in 1644 to protest the pre-publication [emphasis important] licensing and censorship of books. It’s the most influential and passionate defense of the freedom of speech and expression ever written, and it’s the philosophical foundation of part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

As Mr. Trump erupts in tantrums over a fact check on Twitter, it’s worth remembering that the Founding Fathers, borrowing from John Milton, institutionalized a check on his power to interfere with free speech on social media or anywhere else. That’s not to say Mr. Trump can’t make their corporate lives miserable through endless investigations by the Justice Department, but he can’t shut them down.

Mr. Milton, poet and none-to-gentle polemicist, had himself been subject to censorship for pamphlets he wrote advocating divorce prior to the English Civil War. Later in life, after Oliver Cromwell’s death and Charles II had assumed the English throne, Milton’s written justifications for the beheading of Charles I, The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, Eikonoklastes, Defensio pro Populo Anglicano, and Defensio secunda, meant that his life was in danger. His books were publicly burned by the state executioner, and Milton (by then blind) was saved from being hanged only by the intervention of fellow poet and Member of Parliament Andrew Marvell.

Milton understood the evils of censorship.

Milton’s basic idea in Areopagitica [1] was the right and duty of every man [2] as a rational being to express his ideas and beliefs. Decisions in society are reached by open discussion, and the sources of information must not be contaminated by government authority in the interests of a political party. Political unity is best achieved not by force but by a consensus that respects the variety of opinion in a society.

Before he begins his defense of free speech, Mr. Milton discusses something else that is near and dear to my heart: the purpose of reading. Milton notes that being “learned” involves reading “books of all sorts.” I’m quite happy that Milton assumes, against all the available evidence, that being “learned” is a goal of many people in society rather than being a peculiarity of his own ambitions.

He argues that even reading the “bad” or heretical books (his being a most religious age) is important because we can discover what is true by examining what is false. According to Milton, ideas should be examined and accepted or rejected by the reader’s own choice, not by a governmental licensing authority [I would add: or a corporate fiefdom]. Milton did not believe that our minds are corrupted simply by encountering a falsehood. In fact, he points out that encountering a falsehood in a book can actually lead to virtuous action.

It’s always struck me as hilariously ironic that Milton’s example of a “virtuous action” arising from an encounter with a falsehood involves Paul’s Christian converts burning books containing “magick.” Burning books! And Milton himself, as Secretary of Foreign Tongues under Cromwell, was for twenty years responsible for censorship in England.

From my perspective, this betrays a potential weakness in Milton’s defense of free speech: Milton argued against pre-publication censorship, but he wasn’t opposed to censorship in all cases. If a book proved harmful after publication, it could censored.

As individuals and a society, we have to tread very carefully here, because the idea that it’s okay for Christians (or a government) to burn or ban books for religious or ideological reasons is unacceptable and dangerous. The only exception that I can imagine are for books (or other speech) that advocate violence against individuals or groups.

And note: the exception doesn’t include books advocating the violent overthrow of the government. However much I deplore violence, and I do deplore it, the idea of overthrowing the government cannot be censored in a free society.


[1] The title, Areopagitica, refers to The Areopagus, a hill in Athens which was the site of real and imaginary tribunals. The Athenian orator Isocrates wrote a speech, Areopagitikos, in the 4th century BCE, in an attempt to revive the tribunals.

[2] We would now write “every human being” but Milton, in this respect, was a product of his time.

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