Friday, 9 January 2015

"We know our duty...we perform it faithfully": Freedom of Expression, Even in 1856

The reason that newspaper archives provide such an excellent source of information about everyday life is in large part due to the newspaper editors' commitment to freedom of expression. While books are usually edited to appeal to the largest possible audience, a sizeable group of newspapers have always held themselves to a higher moral standard, and in doing so have preserved the culture of their day, warts and all.

In response to criticisms of letters they had published, the editors of the Freeman's Journal in 1856 angrily wrote:

"On the contrary, were we to refuse insertion to such letters, we should be arrogating to ourselves NOT the privilege of Editors, but the duties of censors. We are true friends of a free press, and as such must allow freedom of expression to our contributors. If we may not insert certain communications on account of their bad tone, it is equally certain that we have no right to ' dish them up,' — to emasculate them — to cut a sentence out here, and insert another there — to render a rough bushman's right, sturdy, and honest letter something nice — recherche — fit for elegant ladies to rend. We know our duty, and we think moreover, that every man of sense will acknowledge that we perform it faithfully."

ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS. (1856, January 19). Freeman's Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1932), p. 2. Retrieved January 9, 2015, from

In light of the recent terrorist attack at the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, I think it is worth celebrating those editors, journalists and cartoonists who publish the unpopular, the controversial, and even the offensive.  They protect our liberty in the present day, and a more robust view of our culture in the historical record.