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Episode Info: PODCAST: Political trends are like the wind—at your back one day, in your face the next, and utterly fickle. Regardless of your politics, those winds are going to be against you sooner or later, so you had better know your rights and, no less important, know something about their philosophical underpinnings. The time may be right for a refresher on free speech. The threats to it today are many, but especially insidious are the many social and political trends that societies like ours continually generate, and whether such trends issue from the right or the left doesn’t really matter. In a democracy no right is more fundamental than free speech. The only time we need to assert this right is when we have something to say that someone else doesn’t want to hear and that maybe goes against the current of the times. Some of these statements may well be objectionable or false, but the point is not about the content of such speech but the right itself. What is the basis of free speech? I can’t do much better on this issue than to go back to John Stuart Mill and his classic argument in On Liberty, which he published in 1859. Mill was a liberal who leaned increasingly to the left in his later years, but whether you lean left or right doesn’t matter from the point of view of his argument; the argument can be defended by people on either side of this divide. Chapter 2 of that text was titled “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” and it’s probably the most important chapter of this short book. It comprises over a third of the book and is twice the length as the chapters on individuality and the limits of state power—so this was an important matter for Mill. There are additional arguments for free speech that one could offer, but in spite of the fact that Mill outlined his over a century and a half ago I don’t think it has been much improved upon. Free speech 101 begins with Mill. Why, Mill asked, do we value free speech at all? Most of us, regardless of our political persuasion, expect governments not to try to force or manipulate us into believing something, a particular religion for example—that is, unless the government and the majority hold identical views. We tend to object far less when the state tries to mandate an idea that most of us already accept. Mill thought that we should object whenever the state attempts to coerce any person into believing this or that, and regardless of whether a majority approves of this or not. A violation of free speech and free thought is always unjust, whether it’s approved by public opinion or not. Why? He provided several arguments for this. First, Mill pointed out that we can never be certain that the idea or expression of whatever kind that we’re trying to suppress is false. Why is that? Because those who are trying to suppress this idea—whether it’s the government, a majority, or a minority—are ne...
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