Freedom of speech in a free society

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Some people might be deeply shocked by the words, images, arguments and ideas that are sometimes put forward in a free society. But in a free society, we have no right to prevent free speech and block other people’s opinions, even if we all disagree with what is said or find it offensive or immoral. There is certainly a case for curbing language that incites people to violence against others, or that recklessly endangers life and limb – like shouting ‘Fire!’ in a theatre. And there is a case that children need special protection too, which is why we have age classifications on movies and games.

That is very different from preventing particular words, images, arguments and ideas from being aired at all. There can be no such censorship in society of free individuals – for then they would not be free.

There is a practical case for free speech too. People must understand the options available to them if they are to choose rationally and try new ideas – ideas that might well improve everyone’s future. Censorship closes off those choices and thereby denies us progress.

Nor can we trust the censors. Truth and authority are different things. Those in power may have their own reasons–such as self-preservation–to forbid certain ideas being broadcast. But even if the censors have the public’s best interests at heart, they are not infallible. They have no monopoly of wisdom, no special knowledge of what is true and what is not – only debate, argument and experience determines that. And censors may suppress the truth simply by mistake: they can never be sure if they are stifling ideas that will, eventually, prove to be correct. Some ideas may be mostly wrong, and yet contain a measure of truth, which argument can eke out, while the truth of other ideas may become obvious only over time.

The way to ensure that we do not stifle true and useful ideas is to allow all ideas to be aired, confident that their merits or shortcomings will be revealed through debate. That means allowing people to argue their case, even on matters that the majority regard as unquestionable. Truth can only be strengthened by such a contest. It was for this reason that, from 1587 until 1983, the Roman Catholic church appointed a ‘devil’s advocate’ to put the case against a person being nominated for sainthood. It is useful to expose our convictions to questioning. If we believe others are mistaken in their views, those views should be taken on and refuted – not silenced.

From Socrates onward, history is littered with examples of people who have been persecuted for their views. Such persecution often cowers people into staying silent, even though their ideas are subsequently vindicated. Fearing the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church, Nicolaus Copernicus did not publish his revolutionary theory that the planets rotated about the sun until just before his death in 1543. His follower Galileo Galilei was tried by the Inquisition and spent his remaining days under house arrest. Subsequent scientific endeavour and progress in Europe moved to the Protestant north.

Ideas that cannot be challenged rest on a very insecure foundation. They become platitudes rather than meaningful truths. Their acceptance is uncritical. And when new ideas eventually do break through, it is likely to be violently and disruptively.

Certainly, it can be unsettling when people say things with which we fundamentally disagree, express ideas we believe are profoundly wrong, do things we regard as deeply shocking, or even scorn our moral and religious beliefs. And in a free society we are at liberty to disagree with them and to say so publicly. But that is not the same as using the law, or violence, to silence them. Our toleration of other people’s ideas shows our commitment to freedom, and our belief that we make more progress, and discover new truths faster, by allowing different ideas to be debated rather than suppressed.

Adapted from Foundations of a Free Society.

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