A.V. Dicey on Lord Leveson’s proposed repression of freedom of expression


“The present position of the English press is marked by two features.

First, ‘the liberty of the press’, says Lord Mansfield, ‘consists in printing without any previous license, subject to the consequences of law.’ Lord Ellensborough says:

‘The law of England is a law of liberty, and consistently with this liberty we have not what is called an imprimateur; there is no such preliminary license necessary; but if a man publish a paper, he is exposed to the penal consequences, as he is in every other act, if it is illegal.’

These dicta show us at once that the so-called liberty of the press is a mere application of the general principle, that no man is punishable except for a distinct  breach of the law.  This principle is radically inconsistent with any scheme of license or censorship by which a man is hindered from writing or printing anything which he thinks fit, and is hard to reconcile even with the right on the part of the Courts to restrain the circulation of a libel, until at any rate the publisher has been convicted of publishing it…Neither the government nor the Courts have…any greater power to prevent or oversee the publication of a newspaper than the writing and sending of a letter.  Indeed, the simplest way of setting forth broadly the position of writers in the press is to say that they stand in substantially the same position as letterwriters…. secondly, press offences, in so far as the term can be used with reference to English law, are tried and punished only byu the ordinary Courts of the country, that is, by a judge and jury.’

A.V. Dicey,  The Law of the Constitution. (1885/1982) pp. 153-155.

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