Two hundred and fifty years have passed since Peter Forsskål, one of Carl Linnæus’s mostpromising disciples, perished during a scientific expedition to Yemen. Forsskål was onlythirty-one when he died, but he had already proven his ability in many fields. Today he is above all remembered for his appeal for free speech and the freedom of print. In 1759 Forsskål published a pamphlet, Thoughts on Civil Liberty, containing twenty condensed paragraphs in which he pleaded for strengthened civil rights in Sweden. He argued forfreedom of trade, secured rights of possession, land reforms, vocational schools, public appointments by competence, and proper limits for the authorities’ exercise of power. The most important means to achieve all this, Forsskål believed, was a “limited Government and unlimited freedom of the written word.
The period between 1719 and 1772 is known as the Age of Liberty in Swedish history. It was characterized by a republican polity in which the king’s powers were severely circumscribed. With his pamphlet Forsskål inevitably drew attention to the prevailing gap between official rhetoric and political practice. The King’s Chancellery (Kanslikollegium) interrogated Forsskål and tried to make him renounce his theses, but he stubbornly refused to admit that there could be anything wrong in defending “Swedish Liberty,” which had already become an official watchword of the age. Forsskål’s interrogators were unable to counter his arguments and reluctantly had to let him go. His pamphlet was confiscated and banned, but the authorities only managed to track down seventy nine copies out of a printrun of five hundred. The Faculty of Uppsala University was ordered to give him a serious warning for his lack of precaution, though no personal harm ever came to him. Forsskål would most probably have continued his battle with the authorities had it not been for hisfateful Arabian expedition.
Forsskål was part of a wider movement, and the freedom of print became one of the major questions during the Diets of the 1760s. Other political radicals continued to challenge censorship until the first Freedom of Print Act was finally issued in 1766. The enactment gave rise to a flood of political pamphlets and an intensified public discussion with a radical stance. This political radicalization – which all but led to the dissolution of noble privileges, among other things – came to a sudden stop in 1772, when King Gustav III carried out a coup-d’état, restored royal powers, and annulled all the constitutional laws of the preceding century. As a response to the uncertainty regarding print restrictions, Gustav issued a new and “improved” Freedom of Print Act in 1774. Whereas the old act had permitted everything that was not expressly forbidden to be printed, the new act made it possible to prosecute authors and printers for having published material that was not expressly allowed. He did not reintroduce precensorship, but by reversing the essence of the print act he managed to put an end to political debate. The struggle for freedom of expression still had a long way to go.
Uppsala: Svenska Linnésällskapet , 2013. 39-52 p.