"Censorship is a lesser evil than excesses on the part of the press." What an interesting statement - who do you think made it and when?
In March 1842, the official government paper of Prussia, Preussische Allgemeine Staats-Zeitung, published a number of articles supporting censorship "in order to enlighten the public concerning the true intentions of the Government." This and the publication of the 1841 Proceedings of the Assembly of the Estates were occasion for Marx to discuss the freedom of the press in six anonymously authored essays, printed in the pro-democracy reformist paper Rheinische Zeitung, of which he became the editor later that year. Censorship had been part of the discussion of the Assembly, and the gentleman cited above was a - noble - member of said Assembly.
With truly enjoyable humor and irony, Marx dissects the arguments of the opponents of a free press in the Assembly. Apparently, our friend the noble Parliamentarian argued that the mere fact that the press is not free is evidence that the press should not be free. This is an argument, of course, that kills any attempt at reform at its roots. Marx comments drily: "People were once ordered to believe that the earth did not go round the sun. Was Galileo refuted by this? ... in the speaker's opinion, the fact of censorship refutes freedom of the press, a statement which has its factual correctness, being a truth of such a factual character that its magnitude can be measured topographically, since beyond certain frontier barriers it ceases to be factual and true."
The Parliamentarian goes on to argue that in some sense, censorship is even a basis for improving the press. Marx: "The greatest orator of the French revolution — Mirabeau — developed his talent in prison. Are prisons on that account schools of eloquence?" In the time of it's strictest observance of censorship, Marx argues, the German press had become "vile, and one could only hesitate to say whether the lack of understanding exceeded the lack of character, and whether the absence of form exceeded the absence of content, or the reverse. The literary period ... which we could call the 'literary period of strict censorship', is therefore clear historical proof that the censorship has undoubtedly influenced the development of the German spirit in a disastrous, irresponsible way ... German had ceased to be the language of thought."
Marx' argument here is that if the press is not free to report, it will turn to issues that have little to do with public affairs, but a lot with scandal and gossip. This in turn hurts citizen's civic development and efficacy, which again might tempt one government or other to run rampant with its power. That's not accountability. That's not good governance.
And now be honest: Did you think the quote in the beginning of this post belonged to a century long gone? No? I didn't. I thought it fits nicely into a time when countries pass laws against bloggers; try curbing free speech on the Internet; and when critical journalists are convicted, hunted, or killed. Whatever else Marx teaches us, in his series on the freedom of the press he presents a convincing, historically informed argument why censorship is nothing less than barbaric.
"From the standpoint of the idea, it is self-evident that freedom of the press has a justification quite different from that of censorship because it is itself an embodiment of the idea, an embodiment of freedom, a positive good, whereas censorship is an embodiment of unfreedom, the polemic of a world outlook of semblance against the world outlook of essence; it has a merely negative nature. No! No! No! our speaker breaks in. I do not find fault with the semblance, but with the essence. Freedom is the wicked feature of freedom of the press. Freedom creates the possibility of evil. Therefore freedom is evil."
Picture credit: Flickr user Globetoppers