Free Speech and the Rights of Printers

Benjamin Franklin was famous for his irreverent and occasionally inappropriate sense of humor. Protected initially by anonymity and eventually by authority, Franklin rarely suffered consequences from the objects of his ridicule. But once, early in his career, he did pay a price. In 1731 Franklin accepted a commission to print handbills advertising passage to Barbados. In Franklin’s printing that notice comically marked ministers and prostitutes as equally unwelcome on the journey. In the uproar that followed, Franklin was forced to apologize. The joke, coming from the press of a young man already widely viewed as an infidel in his hometown of Boston, offended the religious sensibilities of powerful members of Philadephia’s Quaker establishment. Threatened with a loss of subscriptions to his newspaper and commercial commissions for his press, Franklin sought to distance himself from the joke and at the same time defend the trade upon which his livelihood depended.

Those regrets, which appeared as Apology for Printers, served as both apology and apologia. Franklin’s essay sought to protect his job, while also defending the virtues of the trade which had made and sustained his fame. This missive was the earliest American entry in the centuries-long attempt to distinguish between publisher, platform, and author. It’s a debate that continues to this day, stretching from Franklin’s Philadelphia press to the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to contemporary debates about social media.

The Incident

Despite his protests to the contrary, Franklin was no stranger to printing controversies. As a young man in London, he published his infamous “A Dissertation on Liberty and Necessity,” an essay asserting that a deterministic universe vitiated any meaningful distinctions between right and wrong. This essay was so harshly condemned that Franklin had to attempt a literal retraction, retrieval, and destruction of all extant copies, and learned some lessons about the consequences of falling afoul of popular sentiment. Even earlier, as employee and ersatz publisher of James Franklin’s New England Courant, he encountered both popular and political resistance to the paper’s positions on everything from smallpox inoculation to electoral malfeasance. What marks out the controversy that prompted the Apology is the unusual combination of commercial concern and gratuitous offense-giving.

Franklin’s commission, a call for paying passengers on a voyage to Barbados, included at its foot a cheeky nota bene. That note read “No Sea Hens nor Black Gowns will be admitted on any Terms” (italics in original). The insult lay in the equation of “Black Gowns,” a term for clergy, and “Sea Hens” a term, apparently, for prostitutes. The unmistakable implication of the infamous nota bene was that in some similar manner, both groups were equally undesirable. More controversial still was the implication that they had something in common. 

Examining the idiosyncratic insult of “Sea Hen” lends credence to the charge that Franklin was uniquely liable for the offense given. Franklin insists that he had nowhere heard the insult before and less plausibly maintains in the Apology that he still does not know its substance. Franklin’s first claim seems to have some support. The term “Sea-Hen,” as a colloquial insult associated with the sex trade, seems to exist nowhere else in eighteenth-century publications.

Printers are both makers and transmitters. In the act of manufacturing a paper, a handbill, a book, they are implicated in or associated with, the ideas included therein.

What makes the incident important, at the core of a discussion of the different ethical obligations of printer and author, is the studied ambiguity with which Franklin discusses its authorship. The closest he comes to disavowing actual responsibility is when he claims that he “never saw the Word Sea-Hens before in my life” (italics in original). Importantly, this claim is true if it first appeared in the text of his handbill, but it is also true if Franklin coined the term himself. Elsewhere in the essay Franklin’s descriptions of the origins of the insult are studies in ambiguity. Just above the passage quoted, Franklin exploits the passive voice declaring that “the N.B. was plac’d there only to make the Advertisement star’d at.”

Later, in his first full recapitulation of the incident, Franklin declares, again with the passive voice serving to conceal the subject, “But at the Bottom this odd Thing was added.” As the author of countless pseudonymous essays, a form of literary disguise with which he began and ended his literary life, Franklin was no stranger to the means by which an author might either hide himself or implicate another. And yet, in the Apology, Franklin never quite gets around to assigning authorship of the nota to anyone at all. Was he merely the printer or also the author? A question and distinction on which the entire essay should rest. Ultimately, in failing to distinguish Franklin as author from Franklin as printer, he lays the groundwork for the ambiguous treatment of that distinction that constitutes the heart of his Apology.

“The peculiar Unhappiness of That Business”

Franklin could be remarkably critical of the trade that made him. In particular, he bristled at the tertium quid character of the occupation. He lamented that a printer was somehow less than an author but more than a simple bookseller, acquiring little of the prestige and yet all the liabilities of both. This is the “peculiar Unhappiness” of the trade. It is peculiar, he asserts, because only printers face such strong responses to their wares.

That hence arises the peculiar Unhappiness of that Business, which other Callings are no way liable to: they who follow Printing being scarce able to do anything in their way of getting a Living, which shall not probably give offence to some, and perhaps to many; whereas the Smith, the Shoemaker, the Carpenter, or the Man of any other Trade, may work indifferently for People of all Persuasions, without offending any of them: and the Merchant may buy and sell with Jews, Turks, Hereticks and Infidels of all sorts, and get Money by everyone of them, without giving Offence to the most orthodox, of any sort; or suffering the least Censure or Ill-will on the Account from any Man whatever.

This is quite a sentence, even for eighteenth-century prose. Over 120 words, countless commas, three semi-colons, and a colon holding it all together. What the sentence binds together, what the verbosity conceals, is not the “peculiar Unhappiness” of the printer but how that business straddles two distinct endeavours. Smiths, Carpenters, and Tradespeople make things, while merchants transmit the goods that others make. Printers are both makers and transmitters. In the act of manufacturing a paper, a handbill, or a book, they are implicated in or associated with, the ideas included therein. There is thus some irreducible ambiguity as to whether a printer is a maker or a current. 

When things go wrong, the printers of the past and the platforms of the present seek shelter in a claim of immunity granting neutrality.

Unlike a printshop today, in the eighteenth-century Franklin and printers like him acted as authors, editors, publishers, and printers. They created work of their own, solicited and edited the work of others, supervised the publications of serials, including books and pamphlets, and took commissions for everything from handbills to religious tracts. On any given day they might write, edit, publish, and print. As a result, the eighteenth-century printer’s situation is much closer to Facebook and Twitter than the production queue at Kinkos.

Like printers, internet platforms do not merely convey information, they present it, design it and promote it in a way meant to catch the attention of the public. In Franklin’s Philadelphia that might mean an ill-considered joke appended to a handbill, “plac’d there only to make the Advertisement star’d at, and more generally read.” On modern social media, it might mean the promotion of tweets, the algorithmic filtering of news feeds, and the cultivation of prominent influencers. And when things go wrong, the printers of the past and the platforms of the present seek shelter in a claim of immunity granting neutrality. Today that claim is enshrined in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, then it was defended in Franklin’s Apology and its insistence that “Printers naturally acquire a vast Unconcernedness as to the right or wrong Opinions contain’ed in what they print; regarding it only as the Matter of their daily labour:”

The claim to neutrality, to Franklin’s “unconcernedness” depends on drawing a distinction that Franklin’s essay subtly subverts. By proposing to enumerate the rights and responsibilities of printers, as opposed to authors, and yet conspicuously failing to clarify even the fundamental differences between the two, Franklin draws our attention back to the peculiar unhappiness of his business. That unhappiness lies less in the opprobrium brought on by a single mistake in publication and more in the chimerical nature of the enterprise. This strange circumstance, the true and “peculiar unhappiness” of this business, haunts us still. It is the legal question that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act sought to clarify.

At its heart, the granting of immunity to platforms for third-party content insists on a clear distinction that not even America’s preeminent publisher could locate with any clarity or conviction. The moral and philosophic questions, about when content moderation, even in an algorithmic form, becomes something more, when it turns the conveyor into creator, remain as intractable as ever. The confusion that Franklin’s Apology points to, that opponents of the Communications Act and Section 230 object to, is legal and moral, but it is also categorical. Benjamin Franklin reminds us that a printer is never simply a printer, nor a platform simply a platform, they are always a mix of maker, medium, and message. 

There are some clear lines. Franklin acknowledged then, as the Communications Decency Act mandates now, that some material is so vile or criminal that the printer or platform bears a liability no matter what their relation to the content’s creator. But Franklin’s Apology chose a complex case on purpose, a case that deliberately blurred the lines between transmission, moderation, and composition. Complexity, Franklin suggests, is the rule, not the exception. But if actual responsibility is complex and often obscure, the consequences are not. It was printers then and platforms now that are most immediately vulnerable to public pressure in all its forms.

The argument of the Apology both responds to and replicates this mix of obscurity and immediacy. It deliberately complicates and conceals responsibility, both for the offense Franklin all too likely caused and for the errors of the trade in general. At the same time, the argument becomes increasingly clear and unequivocal regarding the need for printers to be protected. Presented this way, the Apology amounts to an “even still” argument. Printers then and platforms now may not be innocent, and they may not deserve immunity, but an open society needs it nonetheless. Almost a half-century before American Independence, with his simultaneous insistence on immunity and a sly insinuation of his own guilt, Franklin’s Apology for Printers cultivates the public sphere sensibility that support of Section 230 requires today.