On Freedom from Speech

By Roshwald, Mordecai | Contemporary Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

On Freedom from Speech


Roshwald, Mordecai, Contemporary Review


Editor's Note: Throughout recent months there has been a heated debate in Britain about free speech. The British National Party (BNP) attracted almost one million votes in the European Parliament elections last June resulting in the election of two Members including the party leader Nick Griffin. There is also increasing support in opinion polls and some local elections, motivated as much by disenchantment with the current government as by support for its anti-immigrant polices. The BBC felt its obligation to political impartiality meant it must invite the party to appear on some political programmes. On 22 October Griffin appeared on Question Time, a popular programme where various politicians joined by the odd celebrity answer questions from a sometimes truculent audience. Griffin was challenged repeatedly on his past racialist and Holocaust denial statements, some of which he has repudiated. Commentators generally considered that he failed on the programme which had attracted three times its normal audience. However opinion polls showed that about one fifth of Britons said they would perhaps consider voting for the party, some out of sympathy for Griffin who stood alone amidst a torrent of abuse from the audience and fellow panellists. This incident is the latest example of a debate about the limits of free speech which Professor Mordecai Roshwald considers from a philosophical point of view in the following article.

FREEDOM of speech is not anymore a debatable issue. It is one of the foundations of democracy, which is perceived not only as a regime in which the people are the ultimate source of political authority, but also as a form of government which secures the individual's rights--rights which must not be subjected to majority decisions. One of these rights is freedom of speech. Who will dare to abridge or curtail such freedom, which is assured in the first article of the US Bill of Rights of 1791?

Freedom of speech is not merely an article of faith. It has also been cogently explained and justified by political philosophers--foremost by John Stuart Mill in his famous essay On Liberty (1859). The arguments of Mill for unrestricted freedom of speech are well known. First, prevalent opinion on any matter may be wrong, and has no chance of being corrected, if people are not allowed to express their opinions. Thus, if the once universal opinion that the earth is flat could not have been challenged, the truth that the world is a sphere would have had no chance to be voiced and proved. Second, an opinion may be partially true and thus the freedom of challenging it may lead to the essential establishment of the whole truth.

Yet Mill is not satisfied with these arguments and adds a third reason for freedom of speech. Even if an opinion were patently wrong, it should be allowed the freedom of expression and argument. For a mistaken opinion performs a service for truth! It compels us to explain, prove, justify the truth, and thus keep it a living truth. The theorem of Pythagoras will not be accepted merely on the authority of the teacher of geometry. It will be provable by a logical argument.

The argument of Mill makes it clear that freedom of speech is not a goal in itself, a freedom comparable to the right to move around and not to be confined or imprisoned in a narrow space. The principal justification of the freedom of expression of opinion is that it serves an important goal: the attainment, or at least an advancement towards truth. Truth is the goal; freedom of speech is the means.

Yet the solid logic of J.S. Mill did not resolve the issue once and for all. For the experience of the twentieth century has shed a new lurid light on the problem. Mill had tacitly assumed that the conflict of opinion takes place between genuine seekers of truth, making their opposing argument in the comparatively civilized context of a parliament, a debating society, an academic forum. To be sure, such people could be over-confident in the rightness of their cause and solidity of their argument, but still remain ready to listen to a different opinion. …

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