§ The report of this bill was brought up. On the motion that it be agreed to,
§ Mr. Primrose
rose to oppose the measure. This bill, he said, had now arrived near its last stage, and still the discussion on its principle had not taken place. No gentleman on the other side came forward to defend it against the objections which had been stated to it. At first, when it was proposed to discuss it on the second reading, the noble lord opposite had wished the debate to be postponed to a future stage; that stage was now past, and the discussion of the principle of the bill was deferred till the third reading. He rose to oppose the bill, because, both as taken by itself, and as composing a part of the system of measures which was introduced along with it, it appeared to him as one of the most vital importance, affecting the liberties and constitution of the country—a measure, not calculated to call forth declamations, but to be opposed as effecting a change in the practical privileges and rights of the people. This was not like the Seditious Meetings bill, of a temporary nature, but was intended to be permanent, and could only be defended on one of two grounds—either that the freedom of the press had been at all times an evil that required correction; or that it was a privilege which, though good in itself, we were now unworthy of enjoying. Now, so far was the first of these positions from being true, that it might on the contrary be proved that it was productive of great practical good; that ever since the Revolution, its tendency had been to preserve order and to ensure good government; and that nothing had operated so much to prevent troubles, or even a total dissolution of the government. This might be illustrated by recurring to times anterior to the Revo- 1410 lution, when a free press did not exist, and when, consequently, the people, having no other way of expressing their opinions, had vented them in acts of insurrection and violence. Although the hon. member for Corfe-castle had last night deprecated the existence of the Star Chamber, he had reminded the House, as a kind of advantage, that a free press did not then form a part of our constitution. But what was the consequence? What did history say of those times in which there was no freedom of the press? It described a perpetual contest as existing between the government and the people—the Crown attempting encroachments on the one hand, and the people rising to oppose those encroachments on the other. Having no means of expressing their opinion, or of influencing the government by a declaration of their claims, they were obliged to recur to physical force; and the government was not warned of its danger till its very existence was threatened. He might amply illustrate this by an appeal to the period of the reign of Charles 1st. He might even say, that the revolution which then took place would not have happened, had the king been warned in time of the wishes of his people through the medium of a free press. Nor would the encroachments which followed in the two subsequent reigns of Charles 2nd and James 2nd have occurred, had the dangers of them been pointed out through the same medium. So far was a free press from being dangerous to governments, that it was their best protection, as it prevented, by an amicable understanding between the authorities and the people, those popular commotions which must always happen when grievances, either real or imaginary, produced a separation between them. The hon. member for Corfe-castle seemed to take great credit to himself for showing that the eminent persons who conducted the Revolution had consented to restrictions on the press during the first year of the reign of William 3rd; but he had forgotten to state, when he mentioned that the then ministers had introduced restriction bills, how often they had been rejected by parliament. The severe laws of Charles 2nd, he believed, had never been re-enacted but once in William's' reign; and that was in 1692. The re-enactment was recommended by the committee on the expiring laws, and had 1411 passed on that recommendation; but in 1694 it was rejected. Attempts were made by the ministers to renew the bill till 1697, but were always defeated, and then finally given up. It was not fair, therefore, in describing the attempts of the government to introduce restrictions, to omit entirely all mention of the example of parliament resisting those attempts. With respect to the Seditious Meeting bill, he opposed it on its first introduction, because it was intended to be perpetual; but agreed to its third reading, because the clause enacting its perpetuity had been withdrawn. He opposed the present bill for the same reason that he at first did that for suppressing public meetings, because it was intended permanently to restrain the expression of public opinion. What was the difference between a free and a despotic government, but that public opinion was expressed, and produced its influence on the former, and not on the latter? A government might be theoretically good, and yet practically unjust and arbitrary, if the influence of public opinion were withdrawn; while, on the other hand, public opinion, acting on a government with great theoretical imperfections, might produce most of the practical benefits of the most perfect system of social subordination. Theoretically speaking, the manner of electing members for the House of Commons promised none of the advantages of a fair representation of the people, and a part of the constitution was thus an absurdity; but the House of Commons thus constituted, as had been said by a right hon. gentleman (Mr. Canning) "worked well," adopted wise measures, and enacted wise laws. But why did it "work well?" By the influence of public opinion operating upon it. And how could the public opinion express itself so as to produce these practical benefits? Why, through the medium of public assemblies and a free press. It had been said by hon. members who supported the measures of administration on the present occasion, that great as the privileges of meeting publicly and discussing freely were, they were still liable to abuse, and ought to be restrained. From the class of persons who of late had called and attended the great meetings which the Seditious Meetings bill was intended to put down, he entirely dissented; he was decidedly opposed to universal suffrage and annual parliaments, the doctrines which they supported; but still he 1412 thought that public meetings would not produce the advantages of making known to government the wants and wishes of the people, if restrictions were imposed on the expression of opinions, however absurd; and, in the same manner, the press could not produce all the good which it was calculated to produce, if it was not (he would not say licentious, but) bordering on licentiousness. Unless it could speak freely of public men and public measures, unless it could examine into the conduct of all the departments of the government, and denounce abuses wherever detected, unless it could discuss every proceeding of the administration, not excluding even the administration of justice, it could not produce its full effect, nor could our government and institutions remain entire. The administration of justice could not be long expected to continue pure, unless the proceedings of the courts were made known, and the conduct of the judges watched by a very free and vigilant press. The judges could not be questioned as to their conduct, but in parliament, which thus furnished no immediate or practical remedy against their malversation; but the press, which made known their acts, and was ready to censure their conduct, supplied the immediate and certain means of enforcing the performance of their duty, or punishing their departure from it. The Houses of Parliament and the courts of justice could thus be kept within the pale of law and constitutional conduct, only by the exertions of a free, a very free press. The liberty of the press was a part of our constitution. It had been made so in 1694, when the censorship was abolished; and having remained so for 126 years, it did not become gentlemen to go back to the reign of Charles 2nd, or James 2nd, for precedents of restriction; nor to that of Alfred, as the hon. and learned solicitor-general had done, to prove that securities before publication was not an infringement of our rights, because that monarch had things securities for each other. An hon. gentleman (Mr. Bankes) had stated with an air of discovery, that there was nothing about a free press in the Bill of Rights, and had inferred from the omission that a free press was then regarded as an object of little consequence. He admitted the fact, but denied the inference. The freedom of the press was not secured by the Bill of Rights, merely because the Bill of Rights contained only those 1413 rights that were infringed by the Crown without an act of parliament, and the great evil against which it was intended to guard was the dispensing with acts of parliament by the Crown. But the censorship of the press had been exercised by act of parliament, and therefore could not be brought forward as an encroachment of the Crown which it was necessary to provide against by a claim of freedom of discussion from the Crown. It ought to be recollected, that though the liberty of the press was not, for the reason he had stated, secured in the Bill of Rights, it became the law of the land only five years afterwards, the Bill of Rights having passed in 1689, and the censorship having been abolished in 1694. He confessed he was surprised at some of the doctrines which he heard stated in that House, in which it was maintained that the freedom of the press was inconsistent with the security of private property. Whether was private property, he would ask, most secure in free or despotic states? On the answer to this question would depend the answer to the objection against a free press. If the present bill passed, it would as essentially change the constitution as a bill to abolish the House of Commons. If the House took away the channel by which public opinion expressed itself, he considered the first step taken towards revolution. Unless means were allowed to the people of acting upon the government and the legislature, by public opinion, they could only act by physical force; and thus a foundation would be laid for a revolution of the kind which they contemplated, or one which he should more deprecate, ending in the establishment of arbitrary power. The hon. gentleman then proceeded to discuss the clauses of the bill, and contended that they gave a complete power to the Crown to allow the publication of any thing agreeable to the Crown, as no prosecution could be carried on for a transgression of the act without the authority of the attorney-general, who might refuse his consent if he wished to encourage the publication. The bill gave a complete power to the Treasury to limit the class of persons who should print and publish works of a certain sort. The hon. gentleman from the importance of the measure pressed the necessity of delaying the further consideration of it till after the holidays. Many members had already left town, and it did not become ministers to hurry a bill of this kind through the 1414 House with a thin attendance. It should be discussed after the adjournment, when gentlemen could come to the discussion with cool and dispassionate minds, prepared to examine the proposed law in all its bearings, to ascertain the effect it would have on public liberty, and its influence on the constitution. [Hear].
§ Mr. R. Martin
expressed a desire to see the bill pass with all due expedition. He held in his hand a letter from Ireland, stating, that several emissaries had appeared in the western counties, organizing the people, whose machinations ought to be checked.
§ The report was agreed to.