HC Deb 15 December 1819 vol 41 cc1169-75
Mr. J. Smith

said, he had a petition to present, to which he took the liberty of requesting the most serious attention of the House, as the subject of it was of the greatest importance, and it was signed by some of the most respectable persons in this metropolis. It was a petition signed by 52 booksellers and printers of this metropolis, complaining of that provision in the bill now in progress through the House, for the punishment of blasphemous and seditious libels, by which a second conviction was punishable with banishment, and transportation for seven years. Many most respectable men were in the occupation and trade of bookselling, and invested large capitals in it. From their education and attainments, they were qualified, in point of fact, for the best society in this country; and they were in a state of the greatest distress and alarm on account of this bill. It was well known that the greatest uncertainty prevailed with respect to what was or was not a libel. That was a libel which was pronounced to be so by a jury. Those gentlemen were as desirous as any persons could be that the extensive circulation of blasphemous libels should be prevented as far as possible; but they humbly conceived that the punishment of transportation, which the law applied only to felons and persons convicted of the greatest crimes, and was, therefore, not analogous to the offence in question, was not called for to ensure that object, and would have the effect of preventing respectable persons from embarking their property in the trade of bookselling. Among the petitioners were individuals possessed of enormous capital; some of them had hundreds of thousands of pounds passing through their hands every year. Was it possible that men would embark capital in a trade which they could not carry on with security, if unfortunately they were once convicted of a libel, for the second offence sent them to New South Wales? Among the gentlemen who had subscribed this petition, many would abandon the trade were this bill to pass. They hoped that some other mode of punishment would be substituted to this severe one. Were this bill to pass as it was, it would be in the power of any discontented person, any person employed in a shop who had a dispute with his master, to put this individual in danger.

Mr. Bernal

said, the literature of the country was inseparably connected with its prosperity, and any restraints on literature could not fail to be attended with the most ruinous effects. Speaking from his own personal knowledge, he could say, many individuals of great wealth and intelligence were engaged in the book trade in London. He hoped the House would pay serious attention to the petition. He hoped the noble lord and his colleagues would think it due to the intelligence and general loyalty of the petitioners, to pay some attention to the petition.

The Petition was brought up and read. It was to the following effect:

"That we have observed with concern the increased and extensive circulation of certain seditious and blasphemous libels which have of late been printed and published, and are anxious that such remedy may be provided as to the wisdom of parliament shall seem fit; but that we nevertheless view with great apprehension and alarm the provisions of a bill now under the consideration of the House of Commons, entitled "An Act for the more effectual Prevention and Punishment of Blasphemous and Seditious labels," so far as it is proposed that it should be thereby enacted, that if any person shall, after the passing of that act, be legally convicted of having composed, printed, or published, any blasphemous libel, or any such seditious libel as therein mentioned, and shall, after being so convicted, offend a second time, and be thereof legally convicted, such person may, on a second conviction, be adjudged, at the discretion of the court, either to suffer such punishment as may now by law be indicted in cases of high misdemeanors, or to be banished from the united kingdom and all other parts of his majesty's dominions, for such term as the court, in which such conviction shall take place, shall order, or to be transported to such place as shall be appointed by his majesty for the transportation of offenders for any term not exceeding years; and that it should be farther enacted, that if any offender who shall be so ordered by any such court as aforesaid, to be banished or transported in manner as aforesaid, shall be afterwards at large within any part of the united kingdom, or any other part of his majesty's dominions, without some lawful cause, before the expiration of the term for which such offender shall have been so ordered to be banished or transported as aforesaid, every such offender being so at large as aforesaid, being thereof lawfully convicted, shall suffer death as in cases of felony without benefit of clergy,

"That the punishment of transportation and of death are punishments applicable only to felonies and offences so specific and certain in their nature, as to exclude the commission there of through, ignorance or inadvertence, and necessarily to include the evil intent in the felonious or illegal act. But that the offence of libel is not specific and certain, and is incapable of being rendered previously certain by any specific definition; and that libels may be, and frequently are, published by persons having no community of intention with the authors or composers thereof; and being, from the nature of their business, necessarily unacquainted with the contents or probable effects of the same,

"That questions of libel, both in law and fact, are determined by a jury on the prosecution thereof, and that the verdict of the jury upon a trial, is the sole criterion of judgment, as to the legal or illegal nature and effect of a publication; and that such, verdicts, depending upon individual opinion, are always uncertain and frequently contradictory, in so far, that the authors and composers and first publishers of political and other publications have, in some instances, been acquitted upon prosecutions for libel; and subsequent venders, no way concerned in the printing or first publishing thereof, have been convicted by different juries for the publication of the same libels, and punished upon such conviction by fine and imprisonment.

"That a verdict of acquittal, on a prosecution for libel, whereby the publication complained of is declared in the opinion of the jury to be obnoxious, does not legitimate the continued sale thereof, but that the same defendant is subject to prosecution for each subsequent act of publication of the same work, and in doubtful cases, is liable to probable eventual conviction and punishment; and that a prosecution for libel, even in cases of acquittal, does therefore generally operate to restrain the continued circulation of the offensive work, and in some cases to suppress the same altogether.

"That as general booksellers and publishers, we are more especially affected by the proposed act, and that the more extensive and respectable the trade carried on is, the more probable it becomes that we may, innocently and with good intentions, fall under the censure and punishment of the proposed law

"That instances are not wanting in which booksellers have been convicted, and have suffered punishment, for the sale of libellous works by servants without their privity, and, it may be, every contrary to their command; and that as no circumspection can guard against the malice of an offended, or the negligence of a careless servant we shall be liable to incur the ultimate penalty of the proposed law for acts of which we are not even cognizant, and against which prudence would be unavailing.

"That from the nature of our trade, we are daily employed to execute orders from customers as intermediate hands, in the distribution of new works, of the contents and nature where of we are unavoidably ignorant, and that for each copy of such works so distributed by as, we are now responsible upon an indictment or information, and are liable, not with standing the perfect integrity of our intentions, to punishment, as in case of a misdemeanor; and that if the proposed bill should pass into a law, we may in such cases become liable to transportation for seven years, and to the punishment of death in case of return from transportation.

"That a very great number of historical, political, and religious works, are written and composed and published in London at stated periods, and that most of such works are of temporary and immediate public interest and that such works issue from the press, and pass through the hands of several different booksellers, and many thousands thereof are delivered to the readers thereof within a very few hours after their first publication, and that a previous perusal or consideration of such works, by such venders of the same as are not the original or first publishers of the same, is impracticable.

"That many standard works upon historical, philosophical, and political subjects, which have now obtained a classical reputation, and are daily sold by respectable booksellers, under the licence of a long prescription, may be reasonably considered to be liable to question as libellous by analogy to more recent works which have been subjected to persecution, and that such standard works therefore do not present any criterion for judgment as to the effect of new publications—but may themselves be the subject of future prosecution, and may subject the venders thereof to the punishments proposed by the said bill.

"That the ignominy of a punishment which it is proposed to make common to authors, printers, booksellers, and felons, while it operates to deter learned and respectable writers of the most virtuous principles, from treating on political or religious subjects at all will especially prevent them from engaging in the composition of reviews, magazines, and other vehicles of periodical discussion to the great and permanent detriment; of learn- ing; and will seriously injure the trade of booksellers and printers, in which they have large capitals embarked especially in that extensive branch which embraces the most respectable periodical works in the country; and will tend to throw them into the hands of reckless and desperate men.

"That although we have the greatest confidence in the wisdom and integrity of the present judges of his majesty's courts of law, yet that the power to expatriate and transport for a crime not specific; but indefinite in its nature, which exposes ignorance and inadvertence, equally with, intentional guilt, is of too extensive and dangerous a nature to be confided to any authority whatever, to be exercised at discretion; and that, in relation to a crime whose turpitude is heightened or diminished by the political aspect of the times, such a power, especially if rendered permanent, might become the engine of great injustice and oppression, against which no character, however perfect, would be a protection.

That from the circumstances stated, our trade and means of living, if not totally destroyed by the intended bill, would be carried on under a state of hazard and insecurity, productive of constant mental inquietude, and destructive of the comfort of ourselves and our families.—They therefore pray that the bill may not in its present state pass into a law."

The Petition having been read,

Lord Castlereagh, with reference to the prayer of this petition said, he wished to state, that when they went into a committee on the bill now on the table, for the punishment of blasphemous and seditious libels, it was intention to propose an alteration in it, which would in a great measures meet the views of the petitioners; He was sure there was not a more respectable class of men in the country than the booksellers of London. He did not mean to press the punishment of transportation It was absolutely necessary that the country should be protected against the offence of publishing treasonable or blasphemous libels by a punishment adequate to that object, but as the punishment of transportation had been particularly objected to, from its having been hitherto assigned to felons, and as he thought the interests of the country might be sufficiently protected by banishment, at the discretion of the court, he should Introduce an alteration to that effect. The in- dividual excluded from the country, would not be liable to transportation, unless he returned from his banishment without the consent of the Crown. This security, he trusted, would be found effectual, as transportation was one of the alternatives on a return from banishment. They would thus still adhere to the principle of the bill, as far as related to the second offence.

Mr. M. A. Taylor

said, though some part of the obnoxious matter of the bill was removed by the removal of the punishment of transportation, yet till it could be shown that the bill was absolutely necessary, he for one, should oppose it. It was a measure which should be met, in the first instance, as introducing an offence not known to the law of England. Even if the present law were found insufficient for the suppression of those blasphemous and seditious libels, which it was the wish of every man to put down, yet it remained for the noble lord to prove the pressing necessity for introducing this with the other bills which he had brought forward. When such a change in the law was to be made, why not announce it, and allow time for the consideration of it? Why, but because he believed there would be but one voice in England upon the subject. He could conceive the propriety of introducing bills respecting meetings, Upon the spur of the occasion, and if they had been limited to the time of exigency, there were those in the House, perhaps, who would not have made much objection to them. But the objection now was, that in three weeks we were actually to change the constitution of the country. Though the noble lord had made a concession by taking away the punishment of banishment, with a view to obviate the opposition of some, he deemed it his duty to state that the concession did not satisfy him.

Lord Castlereagh

said, that he did not mention the alteration he had made in the idea that argument would be taken away, but because he deemed it right to apprise the House of the alteration, he intended to propose.

Ordered to lie on the table.