"Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them...
We should be wary therefore what precaution we raise against the living labours of public men, how we spill that seasoned life of man preserved and stored up in books; since we see a kind of homicide may be thus committed...whereof the execoution ends not in the slaying of an elemental life, but strikes at... the breath of reason itself, slays an immortality rather than a life.
John Milton, "A Speech for the Liberty of Unlicenced Printing". Quoted in The Joy of Books, Eric Burns, page 63.
Burns goes on to show that context is everything, and later in life, in the Areopagitica Milton made numerous excpetions to this passionate opposition to censorship, amongst other exceptions being obscenity, libel and atheism - these should have no place in print and further, Milton argued "no book be printed unless the printer's and the author's name or at least the printer's be registered. Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libelous, the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy that man's prevention can use."
Burns sardonic comment isn't unworthy of Milton's own reasoned sarcasm: "It is as if Milton had written a stirring defence of pacifism, and then gone on to explain that war is justified on special occasions, say if your country wants more land or more gold or better-looking women or better bred animals or it's a day of the week ending in "y"!"
So was Milton for or against censorship. Yes, and no. Sometimes. Depends on who is doing the censorship. But context is everything. The idea of freedom has to imply the freedom of ideas. But can that ever mean carte blanche for ideas, printed or spoken or online? Amongst the finest writing of the previous Chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, is his book, The Dignity of Difference. There and in a number of other books he argues not for a multicultural smorgasbord, but for a community of communities, respectful of difference, affirming human dignity, upholding of human rights, and much else that is rooted in the wisdom and faithfulness of his own religious tradition of Judaism.
Perhaps censorship of ideas is necessary for social stability as Milton argues, or intellectual homicide leading to oppression as Milton also argues. But in the use of words, written, spoken, online or digital, the criteria of respect for difference, affirmation of human dignity, the human right to ffreedom, and that controlled only by the human rights of all others to that same freedom, perhaps these are amongst the principles that at least enable us to evaluate, and yes to judge, the validity, viability and virtue of written, spoken and online discourse. This I think is very, very different, from an overscrupulous political correctness which applies the hermeneutic of suspicion with at times a wooden lack of moral insight. The polis is the city, the political is that which is about the welfare of the city. Politcal correctness is best served by political responsibility, political ethical principle, political imagination, political respect for persons; because in the end politics is for and about people. Language, written and spoken, is a humane and humanising gift essential for the health of the polis, the people, ourselves, others.
Lord Reith, that least politically correct broadcasting pioneer, nevertheless had these words engraved outside Broadcasting House.
Whatsoever things are true,
whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just,
whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely,
whatsoever things are of good report;
if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise,
think on these things.
These granite engraved words speak of the emotional, moral and intellectual biosphere out of which the best of human communication comes, best because it fosters community, creates space for communities of difference, and makes possible, across all the diversities of human culture, that deeper communion of those made in the image of God.