Freedom of speech

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 23, 2018, from

2. Justifications

The pursuit of truth. Freedom of speech has been commonly defended as an instrument of truth. That was the claim central to Milton’s Areopagitica (1644) and to Mill’s On Liberty (1859) – the two most celebrated defences of free speech in the English language (see Mill, J.S. §12). If there is to be progress in knowledge and understanding, people must be free to present, criticize and discuss ideas and information. Only in such a free and open exchange will the truth have maximum opportunity to emerge. Once the truth has emerged, we might suppose that free speech has done its job and can be safely abandoned. But the fallibility of our beliefs has always figured strongly in this defence: we may believe that the opinion we suppress is false, but history shows how often truth has been mistaken for error and error for truth. Moreover, as Mill argued, even if an opinion is true, we can be confident of its truth only so long as it can withstand challenge, and even a true belief is liable to become a ’dead dogma’ rather than a genuine conviction if immured from challenge.

Powerful though this defence is, it encounters a number of objections. First, it makes free speech valuable only in so far as truth is valuable. In general, we are unlikely to deny that truth is better than error and knowledge better than ignorance, but on occasion truth and knowledge may conflict with other goods such as public security and peace of mind. Some doubt whether truth should always be the overriding value.

Second, the argument supposes that free speech will actually foster truth and understanding. Sceptics find such a claim unduly optimistic and doubt the ability of ordinary people to distinguish truth from error and irrational prejudice from sober reasoning. In assessing that objection, however, we must be alive to the alternatives. The relevant question is not whether truth will always emerge from the marketplace of ideas but whether it will be better served by open and unfettered discussion than by government censorship.

Third, some forms of expression, such as some types of art, are not concerned with truth and cannot therefore be defended as its instruments. On the other hand, in those cases there are often other goods, such as creativity, which can take the place of truth in a similarly structured consequentialist defence of free expression.

Democracy. The fundamental idea of democracy is that of a people governing itself. This cannot be done if the members of a people are unable to present their views to one another. Democratic decision making requires discussion and debate as well as voting, and a significant limit upon its deliberative process will significantly limit its democratic character. Moreover, democracy implies that no one is authorized to limit a people’s freedom of discussion, except perhaps the people itself. Democracy in ideal form also entails that each person who is subject to its decisions should be entitled to participate equally in its processes, and hence that each should enjoy equal rights of free expression (see Democracy).

Given the indirect character of modern democracy, freedom of speech is also important politically for ensuring that rulers are aware of the wishes and opinions of the ruled, for enabling the conduct of opposition and for preventing abuses of power. Indeed, as a check upon the abuse of power, the case for free speech extends beyond democratic forms of government.

Democracy is sometimes thought to afford an unsafe haven for free speech. Suppose a majority wishes to silence a minority; does democracy not then sanction the removal of that minority’s freedom of speech? The answer depends in part on what sort of speech is at issue. Since democracy requires that all members of a demos should enjoy equal political rights, democracy itself cannot justify a majority’s removing or reducing the democratic rights – including democratic rights of free expression – of some members of the demos. However, the speech that can be defended by appealing to democracy is limited to that which is essential to participation in a democratic process. That does not encompass every form of speech. For example, if we wish to defend the right of scientists to challenge the orthodoxies of their peers, the prerequisites of democratic participation do not provide the most convincing foundations for that right – although it is not possible to state in a simple a priori fashion what sorts of speech will be relevant to a democratic process and what will not.

Individual liberty. Free speech is often valued as a constituent of individual liberty rather than only as an instrument of social purposes or as a specifically political institution. Sometimes what is emphasized is the moral standing of persons. To prevent people from communicating their beliefs and opinions is to violate the respect and standing to which they are entitled as persons. Equally, not allowing them to hear the views of others and to reach their own conclusions is inconsistent with their moral status as persons. Sometimes the emphasis shifts from the ’rightness’ to the ’goodness’ of free speech. The ability to communicate freely with one’s fellows, it is claimed, is essential to human development and human fulfilment. Free speech is a crucial feature of a society whose institutions and ethos enable individuals to shape their lives, to exercise meaningful choices and to achieve wellbeing in its fullest human sense.

Citing this article:
Jones, Peter. Justifications. Freedom of speech, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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