On June 14, 1643, the Parliament of England passed a Licensing Order that put publishing under government control. The Order forced authors to submit their work to official censors for approval before publishing.
The Order was intended to preserve the publishing monopoly held by The Stationers’ Company, but in effect and in practice, it gave the government authority to control free thought via rigid censorship.
John Milton, who later wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost was called to action when he felt the strong arm of government enforcement after publishing his writings in favor of divorce. In response he wrote Areopagitica, a passionate and enduring essay on the right to freedom of speech and expression. Civil liberty, Milton reasoned, is attained through the open discussion of ideas and grievances.
Areopagitica, though widely acknowledged, had little influence on Parliament’s Order, but its importance was never forgotten. The essay has endured as one of the most important and influential essays of free speech ever written, and it was crucial in the development of the First Amendment of the Constitution:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
In its eloquence, Areopagitica says that truth, all truth, need only to be heard, openly and fairly, to assure its victory over ignorance.
That is a timeless truth.