The massacre of 12 cartoonists and journalists at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris this week should remind us to ask: Why is free speech is so important?
It is more than an inalienable individual right; it is fundamental to human progress. That is why it is one of the most important institutions of liberty.
When we look at the history of the freedom of speech in the West, we see that early on it was tied up with the freedom of the press, which is why the terms are used interchangeably in American constitutional theory. Yet, for most of the West’s history, the idea of “publishing” was meaningless. Books were copied by hand, first by scribes hired by Roman nobles to copy books they liked, then by monks in medieval scriptoria, with the more ancient texts copied as practice for copying the more important religious texts. As a result, many texts were lost, with others surviving by mere chance.
Having assumed the role of guardian of learning, the medieval church was ill-disposed towards innovations that threatened its position. The suppression of early English versions of the Bible is a case in point. Information traveled slowly, impeding the progress of intellectual innovation.
The printing press changed all that, as it brought about the first series of real struggles over freedom of speech. Ideas could travel more quickly, and literacy exploded.
As people could finally read the Bible for themselves, Reformation movements grew all over Europe. Then they took to using the press to spread other ideas. In response, the church and its allies in positions of power took steps to restrain this new free press. In fact, early copyright law arose from efforts to regulate the production of printers.
It should not surprise us that early libertarians were often printers. “Freeborn John” Lilburne was first arrested for printing and circulating unlicensed books.
The great poet John Milton wrote perhaps the first great defense of free speech when the English republican Parliament reintroduced censorship via the Licensing Order of 1643 (censorship had effectively been abolished in 1640 along with the Star Chamber, which tried Lilburne). In his Areopagitica, Milton passionately demanded freedom of the press and tolerance of heterodox publications, saying, “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”
The Licensing Order lapsed in 1694 as a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1685, which instituted a more liberal constitution in England, and helped to inspire the American Revolution — and eventually the Bill of Rights and First Amendment. But the Areopagitica is still with us. Fittingly, it was cited by the US Supreme Court as an authority on the inherent value of false statements in the landmark case New York Times v Sullivan:
Even a false statement may be deemed to make a valuable contribution to public debate, since it brings about “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Mill, On Liberty (Oxford: Blackwell, 1947), at 15; see also Milton, Areopagitica, in Prose Works (Yale, 1959), Vol. II, at 561.
The free press opened new communication channels for theoretical innovation. It is often noted that Sir Isaac Newton was born the day Galileo died. What enabled Newton to take Galileo’s experiments and turn them into modern physics was the printing press. Newton published Principia Mathematica in 1687, and revised it in 1713 and 1726. The book was published by the Royal Society, founded in Oxford in 1660, which essentially invented peer review (see here for a fascinating series of videos on the society’s role in the invention of modern science). Newton’s book spread throughout Europe, which would not have been possible under earlier regimes where printing was tightly controlled.
Central to the principle of a free press is the right to be wrong — which enables peer review and criticism in the first place. It is also central to scientific and technological innovation and experimentation, and therefore also central to economic progress, which has led to the great explosion in human welfare we have seen over the last two centuries. Free speech allows more ideas to "have sex," in Matt Ridley’s phrase, and that is why societies that are frightened by the consequences of this ideological sexual revolution are those with the most severe censorship laws.
At this point one might argue that it is absurd to compare a “blasphemous” cartoon to the Principia Mathematica. But that would be a mistake. As Stephen Law has written for the Center for Inquiry, the point of such cartoons is not to cause offense, but something far greater:
More often than not, the lampooning is done with intention of shattering, if only for a moment, the protective façade of reverence and deference that has been erected around some iconic figure or belief, so that we can all catch a glimpse of how things really are.
It is exactly that goal — to help us determine what actually is, rather than what is simply asserted — that free speech and free inquiry make possible. As an institution of liberty, free speech must be defended wherever it is attacked. (My colleague Hans Bader has written about letting down our guard elsewhere.) Those who seek to suppress free speech want to keep mankind mired in poverty and ignorance, subject to their own whims and beliefs. They cannot be allowed to succeed.