By Thomas Donato,
As it stands for one of our most cherished values, we often take freedom of expression for granted… We use it all the time, sometimes wisely, sometimes not. Being at liberty to say what we think without punishment is a feature of Western democracies. The devastating terrorist attacks which occurred in France in 2015, targeting cartoonists who exercised that very freedom, prompted people all over the world to reaffirm their commitment to freedom of speech and conscience. But why do we hold free speech to be so important? What function does it serve in society at large?
Tolerance of dissent has not always been the norm, and still isn’t in many places. Indeed, if history teaches us anything about human nature, it is that the first instinct when dealing with heretics is to burn them. Whether it is a scientist making unorthodox claims about the nature of the universe, a novelist writing candidly about sex or a radical political activist undermining patriotism during wartime, the drive to censor endures. European Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason as opposed to superstition and obscurantism, allowed for the gradual acceptance of freedom of speech and inquiry as a way to get to the truth and spread knowledge. In the late 18th century, the United States of America was the first nation to officially recognize freedom of speech as paramount in the First Amendment of its Constitution. Throughout the 20th century, the American Supreme Court has repeatedly reinforced protection of a great variety of speech, even the most hateful.
There are several reasons why free speech is vital. First, it is a core aspect of democracy. It allows all ideas to be heard so that citizens may make informed choices about their future. Crucially, it enables marginalized groups to bring injustices to light. In addition, it guarantees that people in power are held accountable for their actions and are prevented from banning uncomfortable ideas from public life. Free speech teaches humility; often there is much to learn from opposing viewpoints. What is more, freedom of expression is especially important for universities. In the sense that it is intimately linked to academic freedom, the belief that scholars should be able to freely to determine what they teach and to communicate on controversial topics without fear of repression. By the same token, open access to academic research is democratic free speech in action.
Finally, the main values communicated by freedom of speech are those of tolerance and inclusion. Free discourse means that one will inevitably encounter idiocy and ignorance. But by letting people express ideas we find offensive, we let them know that they are legitimate members of the community, entitled to the same rights as everyone else. It may be difficult to see views we find abhorrent being openly disseminated, but driving them underground does not make them disappear, it makes them stronger. Repression breeds hate, not harmony. Tolerance towards the thoughts we hate is the price to pay for living in a free society.
Farber, Daniel. The First Amendment. New York: The Foundation Press, 1998.
Lewis, Anthony. Freedom for the Thought We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment. New York: Basic Books, 2007.
Walker, Samuel. Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.