Freedom of Speech Resources


Free Speech in the History of Political Thought

Socrates 470/469 – 399 BC
Plato 428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC
Xenophon 430–354 B

Socratic Political Philosophy

The proper place of speech, or reason, in the political community became for the first time a pressing theoretical question and political issue with the life and death of Socrates. Socrates departed from the tradition of philosophy that preceded him by, among other things, his decision to investigate moral and political questions by questioning publicly and privately the opinions of his unphilosophic contemporaries. His public questioning of received opinion about virtue and citizenship led to his prosecution by his home city of Athens on charges of impiety and ultimately to his execution. The defense he gave in the face of these charges, memorialized in the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, may not have saved his life, but it helped to secure the privileged place of science or philosophy in the ancient regime and thereafter in the Western world.

Aristotle 384-322 BC
Born in Stagira, Ancient Macedonia

Aristotle’s Political Science

Though Plato was the first to elaborate a Socratic philosophy of politics, his student Aristotle was the first to articulate a practically-oriented political science, meant to be of use to legislators, statesmen, and citizens. Like his teachers, Aristotle did much to promote philosophy as an ally to the city and a guide for political action, and thereby not only encouraged toleration of philosophy but established it as a crucial basis of authority throughout the Western world. Yet despite the importance of reason or speech in Aristotle's political teaching, he did not advance any theory or argument for freedom of speech. Moreover, his argument that the city has supreme authority over all things suggests that there is no natural limit to political authority that might carve out any specific "rights," such as the right to free speech.

Published November 23, 1644
John Milton, 1608-1674

John Milton, Areopagitica

Subtitled A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parliament of England, John Milton’s Areopagitica stands as the first explicit defense of freedom of speech or press. Milton wrote this speech in response to the Licensing Act of 1643 and advocates for what would eventually become the common law principle of freedom from “prior restraint.” In other words, the state should retain the right to regulate “scandalous” writings, but this regulation should not be permitted prior to publication. Though Milton's arguments point toward a stronger case for toleration of heterodoxy, he stops short of making such a case and admits relatively extreme qualifications to his understanding of the freedom of the press. In particular, Milton insists that toleration should not extend so far as to include Catholics.

John Locke 1632-1704
Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689
Two Treatises on Government, 1689

John Locke: Toleration and Limited Government

John Locke was an English political philosopher in the 17th century who is considered to be one of the most influential of the Enlightenment philosophers on the American founding and therefore on the character and design of the U.S. Constitution. His political teaching is relevant to the freedom of speech and press in two ways. First, he articulated a powerful argument for freedom of conscience in his Letter Concerning Toleration, which, although it is intended primarily as an argument for religious toleration, can be understood to support the toleration of heterodox opinion more generally. Second, he developed a general theory of limited government based on property rights that was taken by many of his students to imply the right to free speech.

Published 1859
John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty

John Stuart Mill was an English philosopher best known for his book On Liberty, which advanced a libertarian teaching about freedom. A large part of On Liberty is devoted to freedom of speech in particular, and this part has shaped to a great extent contemporary views of the First Amendment. Its argument goes beyond the classical liberal case for freedom of speech, which is based primarily on a view of the radically limited jurisdiction of government, and puts forward a positive case for individuals to respect the expression of opinions they find offensive. Mill is thus largely responsible for the more expansive view of the duty to respect freedom of speech, which resists suppression of speech not only by government, but also by society and within private institutions. On Liberty also advances what has become known as the "harm principle," according to which the only justification for curtailing anyone's liberty is that it prevents harm to others.

Harper Brothers Publishers, 1948
Alexander Meiklejohn, 1872-1964

Alexander Meiklejohn: Free Speech and its Relation to Self-Government

Alexander Meiklejohn was the first political theorist to offer a sustained defense of freedom of speech on the basis of democratic theory. The function of liberty of speech and of the press, in his view, is to enable the most inclusive and therefore best public deliberation. It thus refuses to identify the right to speak freely with property rights, which as Meiklejohn observes can have relatively severe restrictions within the overarching limitation of due process. Meiklejohn thus elevates freedom of speech above almost all other rights as the foundation or most essential condition of the democratic process. While Meiklejohn is more strictly libertarian than other democratic theorists when it comes to public speech, however, he distinguishes such speech from private speech and mere "expression," which he believe ought to be covered by due process limitations alone.