free speech

#32 – Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction

Free speech should be defended.

Voltaire: “I despise what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Article 19, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, UN 1948: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Free speech is a condition of legitimate government.

Ronald Dworkin: “Free speech is a condition of legitimate government. Laws and policies are not legitimate unless they have been adopted through a democratic process, and a process is not democratic if government has prevented anyone from expressing his convictions about what those laws and policies should be.”

There are limits to free speech

Alexander Meiklejohn: “When self-governing men demand freedom of speech they are not saying that every individual has an unalienable right to speak whenever, wherever, however he chooses. They do not declare that any man may talk as he pleases, when he pleases, about what he pleases, about whom he pleases, to whom he pleases.”

“Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr’s memorable observation that freedom of speech should not include the freedom to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre”…

John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty

Mill says we need freedom of speech for individual happiness and for society to flourish.

“Harm Principle” – people should be free to do whatever they want unless it’s harmful to another person. Mill: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

How to be a serious thinker? – recognise our own infallibility.

Our beliefs should not be superstitions but “living truths” that can be defended when challenged.

It’s easy to be complacent when your beliefs are not challenged. Mill: “Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post as soon as there is no enemy in the field’.”

Mill believes that causing offence is not sufficient grounds for censorship but incitement to violence is.

Alan Dershowitz: “One reason why false and offensive speech is permitted in most liberal democracies is precisely because the best answer to bad speech is good speech, rather than censorship.”

“If we silence those who utter falsehoods, we run the risk of becoming dogmatic, of believing without understanding, or feeling passionate about the evidence supporting our beliefs. We also run the risk that such false beliefs will be given greater credence by the very fact that they are suppressed rather than openly refuted.”

What’s wrong with causing offence?

Oliver Kamm: “The notion that free speech, while important, needs to be held in balance with the avoidance of offence is question-begging, because it assumes that offence is something to be avoided. Free speech does indeed cause hurt—but there is nothing wrong in this. Knowledge advances through the destruction of bad ideas. Mockery and derision are among the most powerful tools in the process.”

Richard Posner: “People get upset when their way of life is challenged, yet that upset may be the beginning of doubt and lead eventually to change. Think of all the currently conventional ideas and opinions that were deeply offensive when first voiced. Perhaps, therefore, a condition of being allowed to hear and utter ideas that may challenge other people’s values and beliefs should be the willingness to extend the same right to others and thus agree that offensiveness will not be a permissible ground for punishing expression.”


Mark Zuckerberg inspired me to start an annual personal project – read a non-fiction book every week and write about it. Subscribe to my newsletter.

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