Reflecting on government in 1840s England, Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote of an even more commanding presence in the halls of power: “In the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. …

“Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable,” he continued. “Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority.”

While parts read a little stuffy today, the assertion that a free press is essential for democracy, an idea cemented into our Constitution through the Bill of Rights, has become a cornerstone for contemporary discussion of the role of media in our lives.

But things don’t always play out that way.

Despite its high calling, our free press can also be a gutless one — and not just when it comes to words, argues David Wallis, founder of the news syndicate and author of the new book “Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression.”

HARD-HITTING: Milt Priggee tried and failed to get Washington’s Spokesman Review to publish his condemnation of racism against Native Americans in both 1988 and 1992, each year the NFL’s Washington Redskins reached the Super Bowl. His editor, according to Priggee, felt the cartoon itself was racist.

The book contains nearly 100 editorial cartoons and other works of art that American newspaper editors have refused to publish.

Images of Jesus carrying an electric chair up Calgary hill, a suicidal Christmas elf, Hitler serving as a Nixon adviser during the bombing of Vietnam, a corpulent Statue of Liberty, Bush saying his famous “Bring ‘em on” taunt in front of flag-draped coffins and even Pope John Paul II ascending into heaven inside his iconic Popemobile are among these ideas (others appear with this story) once deemed too hot or too uncomfortable to print.

Cartoons are killed for various reasons, most all of them wrong, Wallis contends.

While newspapers are charged with keeping artists and reporters from breaking libel laws, flouting journalistic ethics and gratuitously offending people, he writes, too often compelling work is scrapped because editors and publishers fear offending sensibilities about sex or religion or race, or because it addresses too-scary topics like abortion or terrorism, or in some cases simply because the target of a joke is friendly with news organization higher-ups.

“Cartoonists are arguably the most incendiary journalists. They’re the ones who hit us in a primitive place,” he explained during a telephone interview last week. “Part of their job brief is to offend, and that makes editors increasingly uncomfortable.”

STAINED LEGACY? The Miami Herald spent $45,000 to destroy newspapers containing this 1995 cartoon by John Callahan and reprint the day’s issue without it. The cartoon was later defended by Pulitzer Prize-winning King biographer Ralph Luker and others as humanizing King.

At a time when newsroom staffs are being cut all around the country, fewer newspapers are independently or locally owned and circulation is stagnant if not falling, one of the more powerful signs of this Dark Age in journalism is a collective fear to offend.

Media self-censorship undercuts its ability to express important ideas, such as SPY VS. SPY creator Peter Kuper’s take on the Abu Ghraib scandal as seen on this page, and it can also suck the fun out of reading the newspaper.

Although he has had plenty of controversial works published, editors felt Bob Englehart, the veteran staff cartoonist at the Hartford Courant, would have touched too raw a nerve by
jokingly suggesting that Michael Jackson lead the scandal-tainted Catholic Church.

“Cartoons are almost always killed on taste issues. Every cartoon I’ve ever had killed was for that reason,” he told the Weekly.

Englehart believes that in trying to capture the widest possible audience newspapers are also forcing themselves to be at times oversensitive when gauging reader response. In this case, it appears the paper didn’t want to provoke Catholics at a sensitive time. But too often, trying not to offend means really, really funny cartoons have to go. Some of the biggest laughs he gets while showing his work around the country are from cartoons that editors wouldn’t print, he said.

HOLY CRAP! One of Bob Englehart’s bosses at the Hartford Courtant feared this timely 2005 cartoon could get them both in trouble.

So, just as it hampers political expression, such internal newsroom censorship often hurts artists whose only mission is to provoke a laugh.

One of them is John Callahan, a syndicated quadriplegic artist who also created the Nickelodeon show “Pelswick” and for years ran work in this newspaper. Today he is the subject of a new documentary on his life and work titled “Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel” after a song he wrote and sang on his 2006 CD “Purple Winos in the Rain.”

Callahan is known for being politically incorrect, targeting everyone from feminists to Alzheimer’s patients. But it was poking fun at Martin Luther King Jr., who he described last week as “one of my heroes,” that got him banned from a major American newspaper.

After accidentally printing the cartoon, which appears on this page and was “just something that came to mind,” he said, the Miami Herald destroyed and reprinted an entire day’s issue before dropping Callahan, who stands by his work but has apologized for hurting any feelings.

The 56-year-old has had other cartoons killed — one with a large female bookstore clerk screaming “This is a feminist bookstore. There is no humor section!” But he has never
worried so much as today, especially now that he’s started drawing political works.

Recalling a recent cartoon addressing government-sanctioned torture, “For the first time in 20 years I hesitated to draw something,” he said.

Even so-called “alternative” newspapers have been known to kill cartoons, writes Wallis in his book, which contains one axed in 1991 by Minneapolis’ City Pages. The image was in relation to reports that local police officers had returned a bleeding and naked gay minority teen to the home he had fled from — Jeffrey Dahmer’s — while joking that the incident was a “boyfriend-boyfriend thing” and that they would have to get themselves “deloused.” It was of a police car with writing on its doors that read “To Protect Heterosexuals” and “To Serve White People.”

TOO SHOCKING: The New York Times killed Peter Kuper’s 2004 cartoon wirin the famous image of a hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner all the way back to the White House for it being too much of an “absolute statement,” according to “Killed Cartoons.”

The artist, Pete Wagner, believes that while most daily papers operate with different politics than that of alternative weeklies, neither show much conviction in what they’re willing to publish. Both, in his experience, are more ready to pull their punches than risk taking hit to the bottom line.

Wallis, who has written for and the New Yorker and has also published a book “Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print,” sees yet another inherent hurdle to cartoonists getting some of their more controversial work published.

“Editors are often taught in journalism school to worship at the altar of objectivity. Cartoonists who are objective suck,” he said. “Fairness makes for lousy cartoons.”