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SPEECH OF THE ATTORNEY-GENERAL.
GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY: This is an information filed against three persons: John Vint, printer; George Ross, publisher; and John Parry, proprietor of a newspaper called the, Courier, which, from its extensive circulation, I have no doubt you have all of you had frequent occasion to see.
The information states, that there was a strict and firm friendship and alliance between our present Sovereign lord the King and his Imperial Majesty, Paul the First, Emperor of all the Russias, etc.; and that the defendants, well knowing the premises, but wrongfully and maliciously contriving and intending, not only to defame, traduce and vilify, his said imperial Majesty, but also, as much as in them lay, to interrupt, disturb, and destroy the friendship, good-will, and harmony, subsisting between our said Sovereign lord the King, and his imperial Majesty, and their said respective subjects; and to create, stir up, and excite
, hatred, jealousies, and discord between our said lord the King and his subjects, and his said imperial Majesty and his subjects; on the first day of November, in the thirty-ninth year of the reign of our said present sovereign lord, George the Third, King of Great Britain, etc., at London, to wit: in the parish of St. Dunstan, in the West, in the ward of Farringdon, Without, in London, did print and publish, and cause to be printed and published, in a certain public newspaper, called The Courier and Evening Gazette, a most malicious, mischievous, and scandalous libel, of and concerning his said imperial Majesty, to the tenor and effect following: “The Emperor of Russia is rendering himself obnoxious to his subjects by various acts of tyranny, and ridiculous in the eyes of Europe by his inconsistency.
He has now passed an edict, prohibiting the exportation timber, deals, etc. In consequence of this ill-timed law, upwards of one hundred sail of vessels are likely to return to this kingdom without freights.”
Gentlemen, I have been commanded to file the information now before you for trial, in order to vindicate the character of the Emperor of Russia; a prince in amity with his country, defamed in a libel, contrary to the laws and usual policy of nations, which protect not only the magistracies but the individuals of each other from insult and reproach.
With regard to the just limits of the liberty of the
press, I have never entertained different opinions from Mr. Erskine, even when representing defendants at the bar; their applications, of course,
create differences, and these are to be considered in this trial. I admit the right of free discussion, as it regards all subjects of importance to the interest or happiness of mankind; and that it is only the malevolent and useless excess which ought to be punished.
The Attorney-General, after several other preliminary observations, said, the Emperor had made an edict against the importation of timber, which, in friendship to Great Britain, he had relaxed as to this country, and the paragraph in question not merely charges him with this act as one of foolish impolicy in the management of his own empire, but with a system of tyranny and oppression in various instances, wholly unconnected with the edict which it condemns. The principle, therefore, upon which the prosecution proceeds, is perfectly plain and simple, and I will not enlarge upon it farther than to remind you of the
of the consequences of permitting such unwarrantable publications to pass unpunished. I am aware that there are plausible and ingenious arguments which may occur to the learned advocate for the defendants, from whom you will no doubt have the gratification of a brilliant speech; but without rejecting the pleasure and information which may be fairly derived from it, I know you will still recollect the solemnity of your oaths, and the obligation you owe to the laws of your country.
[The treaty with Russia was then produced, and the publication of the newspaper proved.]
MR. ERSKINE'S SPEECH IN DEFENCE.
GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY: I never rose with so little anxiety as counsel for defendants in a criminal prosecution as I at this moment feel; because I do not recollect to have ever before had to answer a charge so completely and manifestly unfounded. My only embarrassment would be, if I were less accustomed to this place, that the Attorney-General had bespoken from me a brilliant speech ; which is like suddenly calling in a large company for a song from a man who is but little of a singer, and the more disqualified by so unexpected a summons. The case, however, of the defendants, requires neither eloquence nor music to set it off, being the plainest and clearest that can be imagined; whilst that of the Crown, if it is seriously to be insisted on, demands the most determined resistance from all who wish to preserve that freedom and security of political discussion, the right of which the Attorney-General has so honestly acknowledged, and the value of which acknowledgment is so clear, because when principles are once ascertained and admitted by those who prosecute for the Crown, it must be the fault of juries only if the press is not free.
It has been admitted, then, that it is the clear right of every man in England to examine every subject connected with its interests, and to observe upon the transactions of other nations and the general affairs of the world, and without that restraint which turns into a service of danger the propagation of useful information, and the sacred assertion of truth. Malicious mischief, indeed, whether it appears in printing or in any other human action, ought to be punished ; but the representation of facts acknowledged to be true, and the promulgation of useful opinions fairly connected with them, can never in conscience or in reason be accounted a misdemeanor, unless they are obviously directed and intended to excite disobedience and disaffection to the government of our own country; a charge upon this occasion quite out of the question.
Is every writing necessarily to be adjudged a libel, which questions the wisdom or integrity of a foreign prince, or which condemns his counsels as weak, capricious, and unjust, though manifestly injurious to our own people, merely because not