Looking to the Founders: Protest and Violence Won’t Stop Free Press

“That if all Printers were determin’d not to print any thing till they were sure it would offend no body, there would be very little printed.” — Benjamin Franklin, “Apology for Printers”

In light of current events in Paris, I finally turn my attention to Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, and what he could teach us about a free press.

The life and political actions of Franklin are well known — almost all school children can recite from memory tales of Franklin’s “rags to riches” life, as well as his efforts in France during the Revolutionary War. But sometimes, with such a legacy, we forget that Franklin’s passion and career was built around writing and printing — and not always the most popular material.

The Franklin Boycott

It’s hard to remember with Franklin’s powerful legacy that he was not always popular and sometimes outright angered his readers and local citizens.

In 1731, the young printer published an advertisement from a ship’s captain, one that specifically excluded clergymen as passengers. Many ship captains of the time were irreligious, superstitious, or atheist — many subscribing to the principle that it was better to take on the plague than a clergyman at sea.

A local group of clergymen began to protest against Franklin, calling for a boycott of his papers and refusing to purchase advertising. They demanded an apology from Franklin, and assurances that he would stop printing things of “abundant Malice against Religion and the Clergy.”

To their embarrassment, Franklin published an apology in the form of a ten-point indictment against those who would censor a free press. This “apology” contained some of Franklin’s greatest wisdom and wit — many of the commonly used Franklin quotes come from this indictment against the protesters.

Franklin’s tenth point is of interest, where he declares that it is the right and providence of the printer, not anyone else, to determine what they will or won’t print. He pointed out that he personally chose to reject printing about certain topics (in particular Vice and Immorality), even though he could have made a lot of money doing so. Self-censorship is the right of the publisher, and defines what kind of publisher they become.

His indictment ends with a humorous fable, followed by his closing thought:

“‘A certain well-meaning Man and his Son, were traveling towards a Market Town, with an Ass which they had to sell. The Road was bad; and the old Man therefore rid, but the Son went a-foot. The first Passenger they met, asked the Father if he was not ashamed to ride by himself, and suffer the poor Lad to wade along thro’ the Mire; this induced him to take up his Son behind him: He had not travelled far when he met other, who said, they were two unmerciful Lubbers to get both on the Back of that poor Ass, in such a deep Road. Upon this the old Man gets off, and let fis Son ride alone. The next they met called the Lad a graceless, rascally young Jackanapes, to ride in that Manner thro’ the Dirt, while his aged Father trudged along on Foot; and they said the old Man was a Fool, for suffering it. He then bid his Son come down, and walk with him, and they travell’d on leading the Ass by the Halter; ’till they met another Company, who called them a Couple of sensless Blockheads, for going both on Foot in such a dirty Way, when they had an empty Ass with them, which they might ride upon. The old Man could bear no longer; My Son, said he, it grieves me much that we cannot please all these People: Let us throw the Ass over the next Bridge, and be no farther troubled with him.’

Had the old Man been seen acting this last Resolution, he would probably have been call’d a Fool for troubling himself about the different Opinions of all that were pleas’d to find Fault with him: Therefore, tho’ I have a Temper almost as complying as his, I intend not to imitate him in this last Particular. I consider the Variety of Humours among Men, and despair of pleasing every Body; yet I shall not therefore leave off Printing. I shall continue my Business. I shall not burn my Press and melt my Letters.”

Self-Censorship is the Right of the Publisher

The Charlie Hebdo massacre is a tragic loss of life. It was perpetrated by those who believe that differing opinions should be suppressed and extinguished, not held as an inviolate right.

Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with Charlie Hebdo's satirical treatment of Islam, we can defend them without endorsing their viewpoint.
David Yee, IVN contributor
Many commentaries have been printed, some asking why the paper wasn’t “forced” to stop printing things inciting Muslims. Many fewer have asked why these groups can’t ignore or accept controversy as part of living in a free society.

Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with Charlie Hebdo’s satirical treatment of Islam, we can defend them without endorsing their viewpoint.

As Benjamin Franklin taught us in 1731, it is the right of the publisher to self-censor their own publication, not the government, religious groups, or public opinion in general. It is the very act of self-censorship that defines the nature of the publication.

Even open platforms such as IVN choose to self-censor — this very action has created a platform of exchanging ideas without partisan criticism, personal attacks, or grand-standing.

Without all opinions having equal chance to be heard and express ideas, the very nature of the free press has been destroyed. We need to be thankful for Franklin’s wisdom and remember his words during all times when the free press is in crisis:

“Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter: Hence they chearfully serve all contending Writers that pay them well, without regarding on which side they are of the Question in Dispute.” – Benjamin Franklin, “Apology for Printers”