Liberties of Press and Speech: ‘Evidence Does Not Exist To Contradict the … Blackstonian Sense’ in Late 18th Century England?

WENDELL BIRD
OXFORD JOURNAL OF LEGAL STUDIES 36.1 (2016) : 1-25

Abstract: This article reevaluates the understanding of freedoms of press and speech that existed when Blackstone claimed to summarise the common law. It describes the broad liberties articulated in English books and tracts at that time—not only those cited by Levy but ten times as many not noted by him—as well as in English newspaper essays and articles not considered by him. The conclusion is that the dominant understanding of liberties of press and speech in preserved publications, from the 1770s to the early 1790s, was an expansive meaning of those liberties and a belief that they conflicted with criminalising seditious libel. Only a declining minority, led by Crown judges, viewed those liberties in the narrow way Blackstone purported to summarise and that Leonard Levy ascribed to the supporters of Fox’s Libel Act and to the framers of the First Amendment.