December 2, 2016, marked the 250th anniversary of the first Swedish Freedom of the Press Act, which has been regarded as the world’s first statute related to freedom of the press.
The Act abolished censorship and specifically provided a right for Swedish citizens to access government archives. It was therefore also the first act to establish access to public documents for a country’s citizens. Article 10 of the Act provided that “free access should be allowed to all archives, for the purpose of copying such documents in loco or obtaining certified copies of them.”
The preamble of the Act explicitly refers to its purpose as being:
That, having considered the great advantages that flow to the public from a lawful freedom of writing and of the press, and whereas an unrestricted mutual enlightenment in various useful subjects not only promotes the development and dissemination of sciences and useful crafts but also offers greater opportunities to each of Our loyal subjects to gain improved knowledge and appreciation of a wisely ordered system of government; while this freedom should also be regarded as one of the best means of improving morality and promoting obedience to the laws, when abuses and illegalities are revealed to the public through the press; We have graciously decided that the regulations issued previously on this matter require such appropriate amendment and improvement that all ambiguity, as well as any such coerciveness as is incompatible with their intended purpose, may be removed. (Translation by Peter Hogg, in The World’s First Freedom of Information Act.)
However, there were still limits to press freedom in place. The first article after the preamble provided that any writings that went against the beliefs of the Evangelical Lutheran faith were prohibited and punishable by a 3000 silver daler fine (SEK20,185 or approximately US$2,200 today). Other prohibited topics included the power, stature and relations of the king, demeaning language about members of parliament, or libel of ordinary citizens (articles 2 to 4). However, everything not expressly prohibited was permitted. Article five stated:
What We have thus expressly decreed in the first three paragraphs concerning that which shall be deemed to be prohibited in writing and in print no one may in any manner cite or interpret beyond its literal wording, but everything that is not clearly contrary to that is to be regarded as legitimate to write and print, in whatever language or in whatever style it may be written, whether on theological topics, ethics, history or any of the learned sciences, concerning the public or private economy, the activities of government departments and officials, societies and associations, commerce, trades, handicrafts and arts, miscellaneous information and inventions and so forth that may be of utility and enlightenment to the public; as also no one shall be denied the right to publish treatises concerning the public law of the realm and matters connected with it, in which everyone, provided that the publication in no way offends against the irrevocable foundations of the political constitution referred to in the second paragraph above, shall have unrestricted freedom to present their thoughts on all matters that concern both the rights and duties of the citizens and may serve to produce some improvement or the prevention of harmful consequences; which freedom shall also extend generally to all laws and regulations that have already been promulgated or will be promulgated hereafter. (Translation by Peter Hogg.)
The Act also did away with any pre-publication review by the king, requiring only that matters regarding the Evangelical Lutheran faith receive prior review by the church (article 1).
Prior to 1766, the first codified censorship provisions in Sweden were formalized in 1661 in a “Kansliordning” (Cabinet Order), which stated that two copies of all the books that were printed in Sweden and its provinces should be sent to the royal office (kansli) for review (14§ 1661 Kansliordning). The following year the timing of the submission of the copies was altered, requiring that the royal office receive the text prior to publication, and in 1668 another provision was added, prohibiting all reproductions of royal decrees and laws.
In 1766 the legislative power sat predominately in the hands of the Riksdag (Parliament). This period (1718-1772) is often referred to as the “Age of Liberty” (frihetstid) in Swedish history, during which the Swedish Riksdag had greater power as result of the throne being held by a number of weak kings.
The 1766 Freedom of the Press Act was viewed as having constitutional status until 1772 when King Gustav III, following his coronation in 1771, began concentrating greater power within his own office, eventually making himself the sole legislator. However, the Act regained its importance as part of the Constitutional Reform of 1809. In 1809 the Freedom of the Press Act, as amended, was designated as part of the new Constitution (85§ Regeringsformen [Instrument of Government]). The 1809 Swedish constitution was comprised of several documents as is the case today. The 1809 constitution included the Regeringsformen (Instrument of Government), Tryckfrihetsförordnignen (The Freedom of the Press Act), Successionsordningen (Act of Succession), and the Riksdagsordning (Riksdag Act). Today the Riksdag Act is a statute with special rules on how it can be amended, and the Yttrandefrihetsgrundlagen (Fundamental Law on Freedom of Expression) has been added to the Swedish Constitution. The 1810 version of the Freedom of the Press Act is available online in Swedish.
The Author of the 1766 Act
The Freedom of the Press Act has been described as having been written by a Finnish man, Anders Chydenius. (Finland was a part of Sweden until 1809 when it came under Russian rule until 1917.) Chydenius was a priest and member of the Swedish parliament.
There are 16 items in the Library of Congress’s collections that refer to Anders Chydenius. One contains translations of his work: Anticipating the Wealth of Nations: The Selected Works of Anders Chydenius (1729-1803), which includes Chydenius’ writings on press freedom in preparation for the 1766 Act.
There have been several celebrations to mark the anniversary of the Act. For example, the Swedish and Finnish parliaments are celebrating 250 years of press freedom by issuing a commemorative book that is available online (in Swedish).
Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Elin Hofverberg. The author information has been updated to reflect that Elin is now an In Custodia Legis blogger