Milton, John. Areopagitica, a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing to the Parliament of England. New York: Grolier Club, 1890.

Gift of Edward Stone.

The Internet has crisscrossed and broken down physical and communication boundaries, opening up the doors for a wide availability of information. However, with all its benefits, the net also has brought the censorship debate onto computer screens throughout the world. Pornography has never been more readily available, hate groups advertise for inductees, and each new website contains the possibility of bringing shocking or disturbing ideas and images into our living rooms. Specifically, the censorship debate centers on the most vulnerable web browsers, children. With the World Wide Web increasingly incorporated into the classroom and the libraries, parents and school boards are clamoring for filtering devices to limit children's access to only "suitable" web sites. Opposing the move to filter and restrict computers in public spaces, especially libraries, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union fight to protect the First Amendment. Should the government protect children, even if that protection compromises the rights of adults and dilutes the Bill of Rights? Or, should parents be responsible protecting their children?

This speech delivered and written by John Milton to the English Parliament stands as one of the first arguments in support of freedom of the press. In Areopagitica, Milton proclaims, "Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's Image; but he who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason itselfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye." Does Milton's speech from 1644 still have relevance today? Is the Internet an extension of the printed word? Should early arguments made for the freedom of the printed word be translated to the Internet?

Jefferson Letter page1

Autograph letter, signed, from Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Dufeif. 19 April 1814.

On loan from the Library of Congress.


The displayed letter, written in 1814 to Nathaniel Dufeif, explicitly outlines Thomas Jefferson's views on censorship: "If M. de Becourt's book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God's sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose."

Jefferson Letter page2

Jefferson autograph letter, page 2.

On loan from the Library of Congress.

Jefferson argues that debate will kill a bad or faulty idea more quickly than outright suppression. But have times changed? To what extent are minors affected by the contents of web sites? What would Jefferson think about installing pornography filters on computers in public libraries?

Obscenity Report

The Report of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1970.

In 1970, the Congressional Commission on Obscenity and Pornography issued its report, stating that "much of the 'problem' regarding materials which depict explicit sexual activity stems from the inability or reluctance of people in our society to be open and direct in dealing with sexual matters." However, the Commission did distinguish between what is protected material by and for adults and what is appropriate for minors. It recommended that, in regard to minors, parents should make decisions concerning sexually explicit material. The government should get involved only in situations beyond parental control.

Who controls the Internet? Three decades later, we must decide if individuals or the government should protect the interests of minors. Defenders of free speech, Milton and Jefferson could not begin to imagine the sheer volume and type of information that would be available in the twenty-first century. Today, children can easily click onto web sites for pornography, violence, and hate groups.