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Few concepts have proved as fertile in critical studies as the “public sphere”, yet many now regard Habermas’s concept of the public sphere as hopelessly flawed. Critics have faulted Habermas’s notion as an ideal fiction, exclusive rather than inclusive; they have challenged his dating of the public sphere’s emergence to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, noting that earlier periods witnessed robust public debate; and they have questioned the evidence on which Habermas bases his argument, including his claims about increased literacy, the beginnings of professional authorship, and, perhaps most important, the collapse of censorship. In my paper, I defend a modified version of Habermas’s public sphere. I argue not only that the permanent lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695 had a profound impact on both the public discourse and the publishing world in Britain, but also, against Macaulay and most modern scholars, that the press freedom that followed was no mere accident. By canvassing free speech debates from the period and by draw- ing on extensive statistics concerning publication patterns before and after 1695, I show that the Licensing Act’s expiry did indeed permit a public sphere to develop, along the lines delineated by Habermas.
Keywords: Habermas, Freedom of the Press, Public Sphere, Licensing Act
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