That Thing Called “Free Speech”

Here in the US there has been a debate about this issue for over 200 years…what is and what is not….free speech or as some prefer “freedom of expression”….but what is it…no really….what is it?

What me to thinking about this subject was something I wrote about late last year…….you see the president, the old one not the new one, signed a bill into law that basically bans “fake news””……(in case you were not paying attention then I can help)…..

The Birth Of The “Ministry Of Truth” – In Saner Thought

That one post got the old mental synapses firing at an alarming rate….

When did the whole idea of the freedom of speech start?  (The Highlights)

399BC Socrates speaks to jury at his trial: ‘If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind… I should say to you, “Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.”‘

1215 Magna Carta, wrung from the unwilling King John by his rebellious barons, is signed. It will later be regarded as the cornerstone of liberty in England.

1516 The Education of a Christian Prince by Erasmus. ‘In a free state, tongues too should be free.’

1633 Galileo Galilei hauled before the Inquisition after claiming the sun does not revolve around the earth.

1644 ‘Areopagitica’, a pamphlet by the poet John Milton, argues against restrictions of freedom of the press. ‘He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.’

1689 Bill of Rights grants ‘freedom of speech in Parliament’ after James II is overthrown and William and Mary installed as co-rulers.

1770 Voltaire writes in a letter: ‘Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.’

1789 ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man’, a fundamental document of the French Revolution, provides for freedom of speech.

1791 The First Amendment of the US Constitution, as enshrined in the Bill of Rights, guarantees five freedoms: of religion, speech, the press, the right to assemble and the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances.

And the debate has continued almost non-stop since 1791…..

For a little historic perspective on the subject of free speech…..

Millions of Americans support free speech. They firmly believe that we are the only country to have free speech, and that anyone who even questions free speech had damn well better shut the #$%& up.

Case in point: In a recent essay in The Daily Beast, Fordham Law Professor Thane Rosenbaum notes that European countries and Israel outlaw certain kinds of speech—Nazi symbols, anti-Semitic slurs, and Holocaust denial, and speech that incites hatred on the basis of race, religion, and so forth. The American law of free speech, he argues, assumes that the only function of law is to protect people against physical harm; it tolerates unlimited emotional harm. Rosenbaum cites recent studies (regrettably, without links) that show that “emotional harm is equal in intensity to that experienced by the body, and is even more long-lasting and traumatic.” Thus, the victims of hate speech, he argues, suffer as much as or more than victims of hate crime. “Why should speech be exempt from public welfare concerns when its social costs can be even more injurious [than that of physical injury]?”

Source: Free Speech Isn’t Free – The Atlantic

There is also a very good piece on the subject from Australia…..

The term “free speech” is not ideal. The “free” part skews in favour of those who oppose regulation and the “speech” part puts the focus on the spoken word, even though the discussion embraces wider communication including art, writing, films, plays, flag burning and advertising.

It might, therefore, be better to drop the term “free speech” to highlight that the debate is really about whether or not we should regulate the communication of ideas, thoughts and beliefs.

Source: Explainer: what is free speech?

This is a right that we Americans need to protect.


19 thoughts on “That Thing Called “Free Speech”

  1. The term “free speech” is incomplete. I’m certainly no expert on this, but I think that we have lost our awareness of what is moral vs. what is immoral. Having the right to free speech allows you say racially attack someone; does that make it right or justified? Banning symbols associated with hate is not an attack on our right to free speech, rather, it’s the moral thing to do so as not to risk repeating the past atrocities that took place. This is a gray area the size of the Grand Canyon that I don’t think will be solved anytime in the near future unfortunately.

      1. I think that you made a great point. However, the upper-class society fails to realize that allowing citizens to be educated benefits both the individual and society. All we can do is hope that this changes one day…

  2. Excellent discussion…. I would point out the most compelling fact regarding ANY “right”, to wit: you only have those rights you can defend. I think one of the most balanced and intelligent statements on the subject came in the closing scenes of “The American President”, when the sitting President commented on it. It explains the need to allow such activity as flag-burning, and hate speech, etc. as being the only true way to keep expression (of whatever form) truly free to all.

    The main point to remember about expression is, anyone can say whatever they feel to be true, no matter how egregiously stupid it may be; nobody else is required to listen. That is also part of the true freedom of expression; we are free to ignore what is not true, or rational….

    gigoid, the dubious

  3. Doesn’t it always come back to the fact that it is impossible to legislate morality? “Free” speech or any speech comes from thoughts. Can thoughts be legislated and any mention of freedom not become a farce? Your problem is humanity and it’s adversarial approach to just about everything. As long as humans refuse – and I mean “refuse” – to engage everything through compassion these deeper issues such as freedom of speech, or freedom of anything, remain utterly meaningless and any success in that area will continue to turn back on itself. You could take Nazi Germany as the micro, the symbol of what I’m saying: an educated and “civilized” society overnight turns on its own values and plunges itself into the worst that humanity can demonstrate. America is now doing the same. Only a compassionate individual can understand how the cure works.

  4. Free Speech means something different to almost everyone. It cannot just be a universal concept, as without checks and balances, it leads to things like the Nazis, in the long term. Would I have ‘given my life’ to allow Hitler to express his ideas in ‘Mein Kampf’? You can be certain that I would not have.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. I think you make an excellent point, and I agree with you, some things simply cannot be allowed when we already know what the consequences will be. Either we learn from history or we are doomed to repeat it.

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