But that wasn’t always the case. And in many parts of the world today, like China, Russia and Turkey, governments are cracking down on free speech and protest through censorship, surveillance and mass detention.
Meanwhile in the West, there have been worries that misinformation and disinformation spread through social media are undermining public trust in democracy. In January 2021, rioters stormed the US Capitol after false rumours circulated that the presidential election had been stolen. Five lost their lives, while faith in democracy was deeply shaken.
Even in the more peaceful world of universities, debates have also raged around the no-platforming and ‘cancelling’ of speakers on controversial issues. The current Education Secretary has tabled legislation to prevent ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring’ on campuses.
To understand why free speech matters, as well as how we might deal with the difficulties it faces today, we need to understand how the idea came about.
What is free speech?
Free speech refers to the right to express opinions without censorship or restraint. It is among the United Nations’ 1948 Declaration of Human Rights:
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.
In On Liberty (1851), John Stuart Mill presents a now-classic argument for freedom of speech. Mill champions ‘absolute freedom’ of speech. It is a good thing for liberal societies, he says, because it allows as many people as possible to develop their understanding of what is true or false. Dogmas are challenged and minds develop.
The harm principle
For Mill, the only grounds for restricting free speech is ‘to prevent harm to others’ – the harm principle.
But in practice, drawing a line between the right to self-expression and the need to protect the public has been difficult. Hate speech, terrorism and extreme pornography all necessitate restrictions on what can be said or thought. But governments have sometimes used anti-terrorism measures to severely restrict the right to protest.
The traditional view also relies on free speech sharing values of pluralism, toleration and a shared commitment to underlying factual truths.
But what happens when societies become paralysed by the proliferation of false speech – of lies, untruths and conspiracy theories? Let’s look at one historical attempt that made the case for free speech and democracy in a time of mass fear and superstition.
In the Dutch Republic, then an unusually liberal society, the philosopher Baruch Spinoza was worried that the religious authorities were exploiting people’s fears to impose draconian restrictions on what people could say and think. One of Spinoza’s friends, Adriaan Koerbagh, had died in prison after being jailed for publishing his radical ideas. Spinoza worried for his safety.
In 1670, Spinoza set out to defend what he called ‘the freedom of philosophising’ in the anonymously published Theological-Political Treatise. He gave two arguments.
The case for free speech
First, freedom of speech is needed for rational inquiry, education and collegial debate, and these things enhance everyone’s lives. The true ‘end of the Republic is really freedom’, he wrote, and this freedom is achieved through democracy. By allowing the widest range of views to be expressed, democratic assemblies can listen and act on the widest range of information, thereby making wiser and more representative decisions and acting with the common good in mind.
For that to happen, citizens must be free to express themselves and must be consulted in public affairs. It also means placing a much higher value on education and citizenship to instil common values of toleration, curiosity and critical thinking.
Second, no government could ever control what its subjects think, even if it tried. No-one can surrender their natural right to think and judge according to their own minds. At best, tyrants can intimidate subjects into never expressing what they believe. They can terrorise subjects into grudging obedience. But they cannot seize entirely our fundamentally human capacity to think and disagree.
In our own time, periods of social upheaval and crisis are often accompanied by debates around restricting free speech. Spinoza teaches us that such efforts are inevitably doomed to failure. They make societies more unhappy and unstable, requiring further and further security interventions, and stifle rational thought and public life.
Yet some speech is more equal than others. Unless citizens in democracies are led to share values of truth, cooperation, equality and solidarity, we will often fail to understand what each other has to say.
Find out more about Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise through this event webpage here, and watch a talk below given by Marie Wuth of University of Aberdeen, as she discusses the uses of George Orwell and Spinoza to think about the negative role of hatred in public life.
Mill, John Stuart. (1982 ). On Liberty. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Spinoza, Benedictus de. (2016 ). “Theological-Political Treatise”, in The Collected Works of Spinoza. Volume II, trans. Edwin Curley. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
United Nations. (1948). Universal Declaration of Human Rights: https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights.
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