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Björn Asker
Open Access in the 18th
Century
The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act of 1766
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The first Swedish Press Law, ensuring a far-reaching liberty of the press, was issued in 1766
in a world of state control and censorship. In Europe, the 18th
century was an age of
enlightenment, but also of absolutism. Sometimes the two were combined, or said to be
combined, in the persons of “enlightened despots” such as Emperor Joseph II of Austria, King
Frederick II of Prussia or Empress Catherine II of Russia.
The most well-known exception from the rule of absolutism is Great Britain, generally seen as
the forerunner of parliamentarism and a free press. But in Sweden, too, political life was
characterized by parliamentary rule and political parties. The death of Charles XII in 1718
marked the end of a period of absolutism and the beginning of the so-called Age of Liberty,
which lasted up to the coup d’état of King Gustav III in 1772.
The Swedish parliament or riksdag comprised four estates: Nobility, Clergy, Burghers and
Peasants. Generally speaking, the Nobles were more influential than the three lower estates,
as the top military and civil servants of the state were all noblemen. In parliamentary votings,
however, three estates outvoted the fourth, so it was completely possible for the three non-
noble estates to enforce political decisions against the will of the Nobles. The two political
parties of the time were, however, active in all estates. Called, respectively, “Hats” and
“Caps”, they were of course not parties in the modern sense but rather loose coalitions. It is
not easy to characterize them in modern terms without being misleading. But one might say
that in the beginning of the 1760’s the Hat party, then in power, was based on an alliance
between high officials, industrialists, shipowners and merchants. The social basis of the Caps
at that time was broader, and their political position can be described as antiaristocratic,
antibureaucratic and anglophile.
At the riksdag of 1765–1766, the Caps gained the majority over the Hats. One of the
consequences was the advancement of the idea of freedom of the press. Such a freedom did at
the time exist only in Great Britain and the Netherlands. Prominent proponents for that idea in
Sweden were Anders Nordencrantz, Peter Forsskål and Anders Chydenius. Forsskål and
Chydenius were both from Finland, which was then a part of the Swedish Kingdom.
When a Press Law was proposed to the estates in the autumn of 1766, the proposal did not
only entail an abolition of censorship and a widespread right to publish, but also an almost
free access to the archives of government agencies. When the Press Law was put to the vote
in October 1766, the Nobles – dominated by military officers and civil servants – voted
against the clauses on free access to archives. The three non-noble estates were all for them,
however, so the decision of the riksdag was affirmative.
On 2 December, 1766, following a formal proposition from the riksdag, the Press Law was
read in the Royal Council – dominated by Caps – and decreed by the King. As a consequence,
a political debate of hitherto unknown openness and intensity was to prosper in pamphlets and
1
journals. Still protected from direct criticism were, however, the protestant religion, the
estates of the riksdag, the royal family and the central government agencies.
Since the beginning of the 19th
century, the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act is a
fundamental law, i.e. part of the constitution. This means that it cannot be changed by a single
decision of the parliament. Every modification requires two parliamentary decisions, with a
general election between the first and the second decision. The Freedom of the Press Act of
1766 was not a fundamental law, however, despite the endeavours of some of its proponents
to give it that status.
This is part of the explanation why it seems impossible to find any document that might be
called the original of the 1766 Freedom of the Press Act – for the purpose of an exhibition,
perhaps, or for a nomination to the Unesco Memory of the World list. In Sweden as well as in
other countries it has been common to give some types of documents a more or less
magnificent design. I’m thinking, for instance, on peace treaties and fundamental laws. The
intention was, of course, to demonstrate the importance both of the decisions and of the
decision-makers. So, looking from today’s perspective, one might expect that the Freedom of
the Press Act of 1766 was celebrated in that way. It was not, however, which can be explained
by its contemporary status as a law not considered fundamental.
But how was the decision otherwise documented? As I just said, the act was decreed by the
King in Council following the proposition of the four estates of the riksdag. The proceedings
of the Council on 2 December 1766 are preserved, but the text of the Press Act is neither cited
in the protocol itself nor enclosed. Manuscripts were of course sent to the printers, but there
remains no evidence of this execution of the decision of King and Council. To be sure, at least
one contemporary handwritten version of the Press Act is preserved in the National Archives
in Stockholm, but it cannot with any certainty be associated with the decision process of 2
December.
But what happened after 1766? In this context, it’s of course not possible to discuss the
history of freedom of the press in Sweden from that year to the present day, but some remarks
will perhaps be of interest. Firstly, the Act of 1766 was in force for just a few years. In
practice, it was abolished with the coup of King Gustav III in 1772 and the restoration of
royal power. A couple of years later, in 1774, a new Press Law was issued, placing the power
of publishing in the hands of the King. Gustav III, who had a bent for almost Orwellian
newspeak, chose, however, to retain the name of Freedom of the Press Act
(tryckfrihetsförordningen).
After the loss of Finland in 1809, King Gustav IV (son of Gustav III) was overthrown and a
French Marshal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, elected heir to the throne. Absolutism was
abolished and a joint rule of King and Parliament was established. New versions of the
Freedom of the Press Act were issued in 1810 and 1812, of which the last one was formally
(though not unchanged) in vigour up to 1949. Lavishly adorned copies of these Press Acts
were produced and are still preserved in the National Archives, reflecting their status as
fundamental laws.
A short description of the constitutional development in Sweden in the 19th
and early 20th
century would be that the power of the King and his Council, i.e.. the government, was
gradually weakened up to the democratic breakthrough around 1920. Correspondingly, the
parliament or riksdag grew stronger, and the liberty of press increased. Criticism of the
2
Monarchy, the Church and other state institutions by the press was commonplace already in
the first half of the 19th
century.
The First World War was a watershed in many respects, even for Sweden, who did not
participate. After the revolution in Russia in February 1917, and hunger riots in Swedish
towns, parliamentarism was established. This means, as you know, that the government must
have the support of a majority in the parliament. Revolutions and unrest in other states,
notably Germany and Austria-Hungary, precipitated democratization in Sweden. In 1921,
women were for the first time able to exercise the right to vote in parliamentary elections. So,
in the beginning of the 1920’s, Sweden was a democratic state, and freedom of the press
seemed unthreatened.
A severe crisis ensued, however, during the Second World War. As you all know, Hitler’s
attack on Poland on the 1 September, 1939, was soon followed by British and French
declarations of war on Germany. All other European states tried, mostly in vain, to avoid the
conflict. The Swedish government – formed by a coalition of the democratic parties of the
riksdag – succeeded, however, during the whole war, combining a programme of forced
rearmament with much-debated concessions to Nazi Germany. Criticism of Germany by the
Swedish press always entailed German complaints with the Swedish government,
strengthening the government’s fear of a German invasion. As a consequence, the press was
subject to strong pressure from the authorities not to provoke the government in Berlin. By
decisions in 1940 and 1941 the Freedom of the Press Act was changed by the Riksdag,
allowing censorship and suspension of periodicals. In reality, the government never used this
possibility, and it was abolished by parliament in 1944 and 1945, following the rapid
diminishing of the risk of a German attack.
Today, the Freedom of the Press Act is completed by a law concerning freedom of expression
in other media. As for the principle of public access to official records, it can of course never
be absolute. Access to state archives is restricted by law for some specified reasons, notably
personal integrity and national security.
To conclude: The concepts of free access to public archives, freedom of the press and
freedom of speech – in all media – has another character in our days than 250 years ago. It
seems to me, however, that the principles of 1766 of open archives and freedom of publishing
is a historical legacy of considerable value.
Thank you for listening.
3

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ICARUS-Meeting #17 | Transparency - Accessibility – Dialogue. How a creative archival landscape can effect society - Björn Asker: Open Access in the 18th Century – The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act of 1766

  • 1. Björn Asker Open Access in the 18th Century The Swedish Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 Ladies and Gentlemen, The first Swedish Press Law, ensuring a far-reaching liberty of the press, was issued in 1766 in a world of state control and censorship. In Europe, the 18th century was an age of enlightenment, but also of absolutism. Sometimes the two were combined, or said to be combined, in the persons of “enlightened despots” such as Emperor Joseph II of Austria, King Frederick II of Prussia or Empress Catherine II of Russia. The most well-known exception from the rule of absolutism is Great Britain, generally seen as the forerunner of parliamentarism and a free press. But in Sweden, too, political life was characterized by parliamentary rule and political parties. The death of Charles XII in 1718 marked the end of a period of absolutism and the beginning of the so-called Age of Liberty, which lasted up to the coup d’état of King Gustav III in 1772. The Swedish parliament or riksdag comprised four estates: Nobility, Clergy, Burghers and Peasants. Generally speaking, the Nobles were more influential than the three lower estates, as the top military and civil servants of the state were all noblemen. In parliamentary votings, however, three estates outvoted the fourth, so it was completely possible for the three non- noble estates to enforce political decisions against the will of the Nobles. The two political parties of the time were, however, active in all estates. Called, respectively, “Hats” and “Caps”, they were of course not parties in the modern sense but rather loose coalitions. It is not easy to characterize them in modern terms without being misleading. But one might say that in the beginning of the 1760’s the Hat party, then in power, was based on an alliance between high officials, industrialists, shipowners and merchants. The social basis of the Caps at that time was broader, and their political position can be described as antiaristocratic, antibureaucratic and anglophile. At the riksdag of 1765–1766, the Caps gained the majority over the Hats. One of the consequences was the advancement of the idea of freedom of the press. Such a freedom did at the time exist only in Great Britain and the Netherlands. Prominent proponents for that idea in Sweden were Anders Nordencrantz, Peter Forsskål and Anders Chydenius. Forsskål and Chydenius were both from Finland, which was then a part of the Swedish Kingdom. When a Press Law was proposed to the estates in the autumn of 1766, the proposal did not only entail an abolition of censorship and a widespread right to publish, but also an almost free access to the archives of government agencies. When the Press Law was put to the vote in October 1766, the Nobles – dominated by military officers and civil servants – voted against the clauses on free access to archives. The three non-noble estates were all for them, however, so the decision of the riksdag was affirmative. On 2 December, 1766, following a formal proposition from the riksdag, the Press Law was read in the Royal Council – dominated by Caps – and decreed by the King. As a consequence, a political debate of hitherto unknown openness and intensity was to prosper in pamphlets and 1
  • 2. journals. Still protected from direct criticism were, however, the protestant religion, the estates of the riksdag, the royal family and the central government agencies. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act is a fundamental law, i.e. part of the constitution. This means that it cannot be changed by a single decision of the parliament. Every modification requires two parliamentary decisions, with a general election between the first and the second decision. The Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 was not a fundamental law, however, despite the endeavours of some of its proponents to give it that status. This is part of the explanation why it seems impossible to find any document that might be called the original of the 1766 Freedom of the Press Act – for the purpose of an exhibition, perhaps, or for a nomination to the Unesco Memory of the World list. In Sweden as well as in other countries it has been common to give some types of documents a more or less magnificent design. I’m thinking, for instance, on peace treaties and fundamental laws. The intention was, of course, to demonstrate the importance both of the decisions and of the decision-makers. So, looking from today’s perspective, one might expect that the Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 was celebrated in that way. It was not, however, which can be explained by its contemporary status as a law not considered fundamental. But how was the decision otherwise documented? As I just said, the act was decreed by the King in Council following the proposition of the four estates of the riksdag. The proceedings of the Council on 2 December 1766 are preserved, but the text of the Press Act is neither cited in the protocol itself nor enclosed. Manuscripts were of course sent to the printers, but there remains no evidence of this execution of the decision of King and Council. To be sure, at least one contemporary handwritten version of the Press Act is preserved in the National Archives in Stockholm, but it cannot with any certainty be associated with the decision process of 2 December. But what happened after 1766? In this context, it’s of course not possible to discuss the history of freedom of the press in Sweden from that year to the present day, but some remarks will perhaps be of interest. Firstly, the Act of 1766 was in force for just a few years. In practice, it was abolished with the coup of King Gustav III in 1772 and the restoration of royal power. A couple of years later, in 1774, a new Press Law was issued, placing the power of publishing in the hands of the King. Gustav III, who had a bent for almost Orwellian newspeak, chose, however, to retain the name of Freedom of the Press Act (tryckfrihetsförordningen). After the loss of Finland in 1809, King Gustav IV (son of Gustav III) was overthrown and a French Marshal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, elected heir to the throne. Absolutism was abolished and a joint rule of King and Parliament was established. New versions of the Freedom of the Press Act were issued in 1810 and 1812, of which the last one was formally (though not unchanged) in vigour up to 1949. Lavishly adorned copies of these Press Acts were produced and are still preserved in the National Archives, reflecting their status as fundamental laws. A short description of the constitutional development in Sweden in the 19th and early 20th century would be that the power of the King and his Council, i.e.. the government, was gradually weakened up to the democratic breakthrough around 1920. Correspondingly, the parliament or riksdag grew stronger, and the liberty of press increased. Criticism of the 2
  • 3. Monarchy, the Church and other state institutions by the press was commonplace already in the first half of the 19th century. The First World War was a watershed in many respects, even for Sweden, who did not participate. After the revolution in Russia in February 1917, and hunger riots in Swedish towns, parliamentarism was established. This means, as you know, that the government must have the support of a majority in the parliament. Revolutions and unrest in other states, notably Germany and Austria-Hungary, precipitated democratization in Sweden. In 1921, women were for the first time able to exercise the right to vote in parliamentary elections. So, in the beginning of the 1920’s, Sweden was a democratic state, and freedom of the press seemed unthreatened. A severe crisis ensued, however, during the Second World War. As you all know, Hitler’s attack on Poland on the 1 September, 1939, was soon followed by British and French declarations of war on Germany. All other European states tried, mostly in vain, to avoid the conflict. The Swedish government – formed by a coalition of the democratic parties of the riksdag – succeeded, however, during the whole war, combining a programme of forced rearmament with much-debated concessions to Nazi Germany. Criticism of Germany by the Swedish press always entailed German complaints with the Swedish government, strengthening the government’s fear of a German invasion. As a consequence, the press was subject to strong pressure from the authorities not to provoke the government in Berlin. By decisions in 1940 and 1941 the Freedom of the Press Act was changed by the Riksdag, allowing censorship and suspension of periodicals. In reality, the government never used this possibility, and it was abolished by parliament in 1944 and 1945, following the rapid diminishing of the risk of a German attack. Today, the Freedom of the Press Act is completed by a law concerning freedom of expression in other media. As for the principle of public access to official records, it can of course never be absolute. Access to state archives is restricted by law for some specified reasons, notably personal integrity and national security. To conclude: The concepts of free access to public archives, freedom of the press and freedom of speech – in all media – has another character in our days than 250 years ago. It seems to me, however, that the principles of 1766 of open archives and freedom of publishing is a historical legacy of considerable value. Thank you for listening. 3