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Throughout his life, Franklin would be willing to compromise on many matters but not on his aversion to tyranny. After he became an editor on his own in Philadelphia, he led the fight against arbitrary taxes imposed from England. As early as 1755, when most of his fellow colonists were content to go along with such taxes, he wrote a scathing denunciation that concluded with what would eventually become an American rallying cry: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
2 A FREE PRESS
The surest guard against tyranny and arbitrary power, Franklin came to believe, was free expression, the free flow of ideas and a free press. No tyrannical society can long exist, he felt, when it cannot control the flow of information and ideas.
After he had run away from his apprenticeship in Boston and begun publishing his own paper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, he expressed this credo in a famous editorial, "Apology for Printers," which remains one of the best defenses of a free press. The opinions people have, Franklin wrote, are "almost as various as their faces." The job of printers is to allow people to express these differing opinions. "There would be very little printed," he noted, if publishers produced only things that offended nobody. At stake was the virtue of free expression, and Franklin summed up the Enlightenment position: "Printers are educated in the belief that when men differ in opinion, both sides ought equally to have the advantage of being heard by the public; and that when Truth and Error have fair play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter."
"It is unreasonable to imagine that printers approve of everything they print," he went on to argue. "It is likewise unreasonable what some assert, That printers ought not to print anything but what they approve; since ... an end would thereby be put to free writing, and the world would afterwards have nothing to read but what happened to be the opinions of printers."
It was not in Franklin's nature, however, to be dogmatic or extreme about any principle; he generally gravitated toward a sensible balance. The rights of printers, he realized, were balanced by their duty to be responsible. Thus, even though printers should be free to publish offensive opinions, they should exercise discretion. "I myself have constantly refused to print anything that might countenance vice or promote immorality, though ... I might have got much money. I have also always refused to print such things as might do real injury to any person."
One such example involved a customer who asked the young printer to publish a piece in the Gazette that Franklin found "scurrilous and defamatory." In his effort to decide whether he should take the customer's money even though it violated his principles, Franklin subjected himself to the following test: