“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”, said John Milton some 366 years ago. At the time, Milton’s plea centered on his recognition that the rise of the printing press and of the printed word itself would bring with it a pressing need for tolerance in the form of wide ranging, differing views and thoughts which would be espoused by virtually all men.
Governments of that era expressed alarm more than they did agreement and immediately set about desperately trying to control what they envisioned as being a menace to society. Years later John Stuart Mill would argue that absent freedom of expression there would be little or no progress made in the things crucial to a functioning society. In 1859, Mill’s On Liberty became a clarion call to the right to freedom of expression. Without such freedom, Mills claimed, truth could never emerge.
Through the years, Mill’s and other’s ideas collectively served to form much of the basis for many of today’s freedoms as outlined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. And yet, as much as we may treasure and value the right of free speech, at the same time we should understand that that right does not carry with it the popularized concept that one may indeed always say whatever one might want to say.
In the aggregate, government regulation has over time certainly assumed a considerably more conciliatory view of free speech than it once held during the time of John Stuart Mill. Even so, governments still do regulate speech to certain degrees. And the kind of speech which falls under such governmental regulation often involves questions about whether or not the nature of some kinds of speech might bring about what can reasonably be determined to result in a predictably egregious outcome.
So in spite of the rather broadly permissive quality afforded by the provisions of the first amendment, we nevertheless still struggle with the overall idea and concept of free speech itself. Thus we may tend to clearly take offense at speech that we might charge as being weighted with patently offensive qualities. Still, problems can develop once we begin to enumerate and single out certain words to the point that we prohibit any speech with which we do not agree.
Since its adoption in 1791 as a part of the Bill of Rights, we’ve struggled with the guarantees not only of free speech, but of free press, religion and assembly. All of those protections have been subjected to apparently endless challenges. Most recently, hate speech has wormed its way back into the forefront of public consciousness.
So has the very concept itself of free speech become something that has over time been found to be all but impossible, either to define or to effectively regulate by the very governments charged with protecting that selfsame right? In the often chaotic and noisy environment of rhetorical expression where many would probably say that we now live, might we be tempted to try to impose even more punishing restrictions as to what does or does not constitute free speech?
For answers to these questions we might be wise to seek counsel in the words uttered in 1927 by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’, who in voicing his own thoughts set forth the principle that perhaps illustrates that the best way for us to counter hateful, dangerous and simply ill-advised ideas is through the expression of better ideas. “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education,” he said, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
In today’s heated debate, such advice might at first appear to be illogical and/or unwise at best. But then we should know that democracy, in its seemingly unending quest to provide the people with cherished freedoms can often prove to be an admittedly very messy business in practice. As such then, the very spirit of democracy requires a determination and willingness on our part for us to freely talk about, intelligently discuss and educate ourselves about the predictable differences we are all almost certain to have. After all, while we may regularly say words to the effect that would likely convince most reasonable people that we truly treasure such freedoms, it is only by our actions that we may prove that we actually do.