Freedom of Speech isn't About Speech

There’s been a lot of debate about free speech lately, and I’ve noticed that people on both sides often misunderstand why it’s a good idea. It’s commonly assumed that freedom of speech is about the right of the speaker to express their ideas, but if you read early formulations of the concept, you’ll find a totally different justification: Free speech is good because it benefits the audience, including those who disagree with the speaker. Freedom of speech isn’t about speech. It’s about hearing.

Some History

A concise version of this argument comes from Thomas Paine’s introduction to The Age of Reason:

You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.1

Paine wrote this in 1794, while imprisoned in Paris. Paine avoided execution2 and eventually returned to the US.

80 years later, John Stuart Mill made the same point in On Liberty:

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.3

This is the most succinct and powerful argument for free speech that I have come across. It demonstrates why free speech must apply even to repulsive and wrong-headed ideas. We allow bad ideas because they help to strengthen good ideas. Hearing arguments for bad ideas allows us to find their flaws and discover better counterarguments. At the very least, debate forces us to re-examine why we believe what we believe. How do you know the planet is 4.5 billion years old and not 6,000? It’s useful to occasionally rebuild beliefs from the ground up. Doing so helps us be wrong less often.

Alright. Let’s say you largely agree with Paine and Mill, but feel that certain things simply aren’t up for debate. Maybe some ideas are just too harmful or detestable to be tolerated in society. Even if that’s true, the cure is likely worse than the disease. Banning ideas creates practical problems.

Who Decides?

The key question of censorship is: Who decides what to censor? Framing freedom of speech in terms of hearing reveals how insidious this question is. If you ask, “Who should decide which ideas one may speak or publish?”, many are willing to let a government body take the reins. If you ask, “Who should decide which ideas you may hear or read?”, people boggle. But as Paine and Mill pointed out, these are the same question. If you don’t trust others to decide what you can read or hear, then you don’t trust them to decide what can be written or uttered.

Unintended Consequences

Imagine our society passes laws to ban the publishing of abhorrent and bigoted ideas. No longer are people allowed to express racism, sexism, homophobia, or antisemitism. So we ban Mein Kampf. No great loss there. Can you think of some other influential texts that are full of racism, sexism, homophobia, and antisemitism? A couple come to my mind: The Bible and the Qur’an. Honestly, how can you not ban them? These texts contain passages endorsing slavery. For centuries, the ideas in these books have been used to justify pogroms. Even today, they create needless suffering for much of humanity. If you find yourself struggling to find reasons why religious texts should be exempt, then you see the problem. If censorship laws are consistently applied, most religious texts will be banned. If they’re inconsistently applied, the people in charge will censor according to their own beliefs and biases. Would you trust the current administration with that kind of authority? Neither outcome seems desirable to me.

Conclusion

The arguments above aren’t new4, but they seem to have disappeared from discourse. That’s unfortunate, as freedom of speech is crucial to the well-being of our society. That is why it’s important, not because it’s good for the speaker, and certainly not because it’s some noble ideal to be worshipped for its own sake. The original basis for free speech was pragmatic, not dogmatic. If Paine and Mill had thought that censorship would make people better-off, they would have said so.

I’m disappointed that so many people misunderstand this. Hopefully that changes.


  1. The full text of Paine’s Age of Reason is available here

  2. From Wikipedia:

    Paine narrowly escaped execution. A chalk mark was supposed to be left by the gaoler on the door of a cell to denote that the prisoner inside was due to be removed for execution. In Paine’s case, the mark had accidentally been made on the inside of his door rather than the outside; this was due to the fact that the door of Paine’s cell had been left open whilst the gaoler was making his rounds that day, since Paine had been receiving official visitors. But for this quirk of fate, Paine would have been executed the following morning. He kept his head and survived the few vital days needed to be spared by the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794).

  3. From chapter 2 of On Liberty 

  4. Credit where credit is due: In addition to Mill & Paine, many of the ideas in this post come from a speech by Christopher Hitchens



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