By Rebecca Taylor, Siena College
It was 375 years ago that John Milton penned what would become the oft-cited essay against censorship by royal decree, Areopagitica: A speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England. Published in 1644, the text is arguably a sophisticated reading assignment for undergraduate journalism students to interpret.
But Milton’s arguments against government suppression of the press can be used in the undergraduate journalism classroom, to analyze contemporary cases in modern media, and to enhance the student’s understanding of First Amendment protections.
As a professor who teaches communications law at a small liberal arts college, students generally grimace when I assign Areopagitica, which is often one of the first required texts in my media law seminar.
The importance of the assignment is not just to digest the complex text, but to underscore its application to contemporary cases involving the First Amendment, and more specifically prior restraint. Prior restraint is pre-publication censorship, and generally held to be unconstitutional.
To underscore the applicability of Milton’s essay, I pair the reading with a contemporary case. In one of my classes, we used Milton’s arguments to analyze President Donald Trump’s efforts to stop the publication of the book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump Whitehouse, amid his claims that the book contained defamatory content. Another semester, we applied Milton’s arguments to examine efforts to prohibit a controversial website from providing detailed instructions to print and assemble a gun using a 3-D printer, a case that was pending in federal court.
Students are required to argue all of the relevant arguments from Areopagitica they can identify to the facts of the contemporary case – that truth will prevail, that censorship is insulting and paternalistic, and that legitimizing censorship in one form would inevitably lead society down a slippery slope, permitting government to sanction other forms of self-expression. And while it is important to note that critics have sharply criticized Milton for his limited view of freedom of the press, the merits of some of the arguments against prior restraint maintain relevance today.
I should note I provide a link to an annotated version of Areopagitica, which students find immensely helpful in understanding the text. Some students tell me they’ve elected to read Areopagitica aloud in pairs to better dissect its meaning.
Not only am I impressed with their performance, but the students also express genuine pride in demystifying such a famous, yet complex, text.
Moreover, I find students are better able to digest the reasoning of the U.S. Supreme Court in Near v. Minnesota, the landmark case that held a presumption of unconstitutionality in acts of prior restraint. Having tackled a 17th century essay on censorship, they exhibit greater confidence when examining United States Supreme Court decisions. Clearly, the Court’s legal language can be sophisticated, but in general, not so challenging as 1644 Milton. And the historical document’s relevance to contemporary cases in journalism law and ethics can make for an engaging class assignment.
Rebecca Taylor, J.D., is director of the Journalism program at Siena College in New York, where she teaches reporting and communication law.