It’s a paradox: The ability to communicate, spread and access information freely across borders and barriers has never been more readily available to people around the globe. Yet the belief in freedom of thought and expression as fundamental values underpinning an uber-connected world seems to be eroding. Even in democracies. Whether its American college students protesting (sometimes violently) speakers they disagree with, European democracies panicking about fake news, populism and extremism, or the American president labelling the media an “enemy of the people.” Instead free speech has increasingly come to be viewed as an excuse and a vehicle for racism, bigotry, populism, disinformation and a general threat to social peace, harmony and order. This is backed up by data from Freedom House showing that global respect for press freedom reached a 13-year low in 2016 following constant decline since 2004. The message in Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) 2017 Press Freedom Index is hardly more uplifting:
“violations of the freedom to inform are less and less the prerogative of authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. Once taken for granted, media freedom is proving to be increasingly fragile in democracies as well. In sickening statements, draconian laws, conflicts of interest, and even the use of physical violence, democratic governments are trampling on a freedom that should, in principle, be one of their leading performance indicators.”
Using RSF data from 2016 all but two of 28 democratic European countries experienced declines in press freedom compared to 2013. A 2017 survey on the attitudes of 15-21 year olds in 20 countries around the world found that around half believe people should have the right to non-violent free speech even when it is offensive to a religion (56%) or minority groups (49%). And while 93% of American millennials favour free speech in general, these figures drop to 62% and 57% when it comes to offensive speech regarding religion and minority groups respectively. These figures drop significantly among millennials in other democratic countries such as France and the United Kingdom.
If we take free speech for granted and have become apathetic about its value that would not be the first time in history. In the introduction to his classic work A History of Freedom of Thought Irish historian J.B. Bury wrote:
“At present, in most civilized countries, freedom of speech is taken as a matter of course and seems a perfectly simple thing. We are so accustomed to it that we look on it as a natural right. But this right has been acquired only in recent times, and the way to its attainment has lain through lakes of blood.”
Those words were written in 1912. A mere two years later the Great War would result in new lakes of blood deeper than at any other point in previous human history, as well as massive repression of dissent, censorship and surveillance of global communications. The emergence of totalitarian ideologies, another cataclysmic World War, immediately followed by a cold one, created new bloodshed and repression dashing Bury’s hope of free speech continuing its victory march uninhibited in the 20th Century. The mood described by Bury in 1912 and the subsequent events should warn us against complacency.
If the digital age has bred more cynicism than enthusiasm for free speech, democratic netizens should look backwards rather than forward to rediscover the fundamental importance of free speech. A closer historical look at the challenges and achievements of free speech, should lay to rest the idea that free speech is a tool for the privileged with which to beat the powerless and disenfranchised. And that democracies can counter new threats by limiting free speech without cost to democracy itself.
A good place to start is the Athenian democracy that developed around 500 BCE and in which the concepts of “Isegoria” (“equality of speech” and “Parrhesia” (loosely translated as “free” or “frank” speech) became an integral part. Unlike modern concepts of free speech isegoria and parrhesia did not constitute an individual right protecting the Athenian citizen from the state. Isegoria were based on an egalitarian ideal where all (free and male) citizens could speak freely, not only in assemblies and courts, but also in plays, public discussions etc. Despite being limited to free male citizens, parrhesia was in many ways a radical concept which freed Athenians from the tyranny of previous social and political hierarchies, and let both rich and poor be heard and directly take part in democratic decision making. In his funeral speech Demosthenes held “Democracies, however, possess many other just and noble features, to which right-minded men should hold fast, and in particular it is impossible to deter Parrhesia, which depends upon speaking the truth, from exposing the truth.” If we accept that “isegoria” and “parrhesia” was the first institutionalization of free speech, it is ironic that groups of citizens in democracies today see free speech as a perpetuation of oppressive power, privilege and hierarchy. For the very genesis of free speech was a strong egalitarian impulse aimed at checking just those traits.
Despite its progressive ideals the Athenian model of free speech would fall far short of modern standards with its exclusion of women, slaves and non-citizens. But much later events would show that traditionally marginalized and oppressed groups have the most to gain by the advancement of free speech, and the most to lose by its denial. Olympe de Gouges was a revolutionary playwright and pamphleteer who during the French Revolution drafted the “Declaration on the Rights of Women.” Article 1 stated that “Woman is born free and remains equal to man in right.” When de Gouges argued against the execution King Louis XVI and severely criticized the violent excesses of Robespierre’s government and the National Convention, she was arrested for attacking the sovereignty of the people. During her trial the public prosecutor fulminated that ”There can be no mistaking the perfidious intentions of this criminal woman” and that it was with “the most violent indignation that one hears the de Gouges woman say to men” that the King still reigned among them. De Gouges made a passionate but unsuccessful plea for free speech:
“Does…the constitution not bless the freedom of expression, and of the press, as the most precious heritage of man? These rights, this heritage, this actual constitution, are they only vague phrases with illusory meanings?”
On 3 November 1793 she was guillotined, by an increasingly tyrannical government claiming a monopoly on the interpretation and implementation of the general will and wellbeing of the people in whose name it claimed to speak. Progressives had turned to authoritarian by abandoning their liberal principles.
Countless other women would have had to sacrifice life, liberty and reputation before women were given equal legal rights. Among those on the frontlines were the British suffragettes led by Emmeline Pankhurst and while the motto of the Women’s Social and Political Union that she founded was “deeds not words,” suffragettes were arrested, banned from public assemblies and heckled by male counterdemonstrations. In the US the Russian-Jewish immigrant Emma Goldman became a prominent champion of free speech who paid a high price for her views. Goldman was an anarchist who argued for free love, contraception, women’s rights and against American participation in World War I, earning her the nick name “The high priestess of anarchism.” Goldman would be arrested more than 40 times and spend more than a year in prison, and was finally deported to the Soviet Union for her anti-war agitation.
Race and the poisoned legacy of slavery and colonialism are among the driving factors have seen many progressives question just how much value should be attached to free speech. But affecting popular opinion was a crucial element in both the fight for abolition of slavery, civil rights and anti-colonialism. From 1836-44 The House of Representatives passed the so-called “Gag rule(s),” which barred congress from reading or discussing anti-slavery petitions, a policy vehemently opposed by John Quincy Adams. Frederick Douglass – a run away slave who became a prolific writer and orator – is perhaps America’s most eloquent abolitionist. On 3 December 1860 abolitionists held a meeting at Tremont Temple in Boston commemorating the one year anniversary of the execution of John Brown. The meeting was violently disrupted by white merchants and businessmen (and their hired hands) who feared that radical abolitionism would endanger their business interest in the South. Shortly thereafter Frederick Douglass penned “A Plea for Free Speech in Boston” decrying the impunity with which the meeting had been disrupted. He also made a strong case that free speech is the precondition for greater freedom including the abolishment of slavery: “Slavery cannot tolerate free speech. Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South,” and linked free speech to the equality of mankind regardless of race: “A man’s right to speak does not depend upon where he was born or upon his color. The simple quality of manhood is the solid basis of the right – and there let it rest forever.” If alive today Douglass would likely be appalled that among those animated by his ideals of racial equality are some who have adopted the same illiberal tactics that critics of the abolitionist cause used on the eve of the American Civil War.
While (Western) slavery would disappear in the 19thCentury, colonialism — very often racist in nature — would continue into the 20th Century.
In 1922 indian national hero Mahatma Ghandi stood trial for sedition under section 124a of the Indian penal code, introduced by the British colonial power in 1870, which punishes “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the Government established by law in [India].”
During the trial Ghandi held a famous speech in which he initially pleaded guilty to the charge. He argued that the English and their Indian were ignorant of the fact that they administered “a subtle but effective system of terrorism and an organized display of force on the one hand, and the deprivation of all powers of retaliation or self-defence on the other.” He then turned to the law: “Section 124 A, under which I am happily charged, is perhaps the prince among the political sections of the Indian Penal Code designed to suppress the liberty of the citizen. Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote, or incite to violence.” Gandhi also held that “I know that some of the most loved of India’s patriots have been convicted under it. I consider it a privilege, therefore, to be charged under that section.” Ghandi was then convicted to six years imprisonment by the British colonial court.
On just about every cause that animates contemporary progressives and forms part of the fabric of modern liberal democracies, free speech has been crucial to advancing these issues and the restriction of free speech has been a favored weapon in halting their advance. Those who have insisted that laws should protect specific moral values from criticism or repudiation and who have been prepared to use extra legal means such as violence and heckling have generally been on the side of privilege and status quo. These historical precedents should give today’s militant progressive and fearful democracies food for thought and prompt a change of tactics that embraces rather than rejects free speech. Even when used to espouse the ideas they hate. Back in 1912 Bury warned that: “it is by no means inconceivable that in lands where opinion is now free coercion might be introduced. If a revolutionary social movement prevailed, led by men inspired by faith in formulas (like the men of the French Revolution) and resolved to impose their creed, experience shows that coercion would almost inevitably be resorted to.” His warning was not heeded and the consequences were catastrophic. In our current state of global affairs can we really afford to ignore his wisdom again?