Freedom of Speech Resources

EXPLORE THE HISTORY, LAW, AND THEORY OF FREE SPEECH

The Old World

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.

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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.

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Circa 4 BC - 30 AD

Execution of Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus of Nazareth, known as Jesus Christ to his Christian followers, was the spiritual founder of Christianity. Jesus was famously crucified in Jerusalem by the Roman authorities under the encouragement of the Jewish leadership because his teachings were heretical to the latter and politically dangerous to the former. John Stuart Mill, the famous 19th-century defender of freedom of speech, would later hold up Jesus, along with Socrates, as an example of a world-transforming eccentric who illustrates the need to make room in society for those with radically unconventional views.

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Circa 1440 AD
Johannes Gutenberg 1400-1468

Invention of the Printing Press

The transition from handwritten manuscripts to printed books marks a crucial turning point in the history of speech, or reason, and politics. The ease and affordability of reproducing written work with the mechanical printing press that Johannes Gutenberg invented, or at least perfected, in the fifteenth century Holy Roman Empire, dramatically expanded the audience that an author could reach. Book reading was no longer the exclusive province of the privileged few who were rich enough to afford to buy hand-copied scrolls and codices, which were difficult to produce and therefore scarce and expensive. The result was the rapid proliferation of reading among previous excluded classes, and an enormous increase in the influence of single talented authors over society. It was not long before the two predominant authorities in the western world, the church and the state, responded to this new rival influence with measures to regulate and control presses.

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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.

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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.

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Published 1765-1769
William Blackstone 1723-1780

William Blackstone: Commentaries on the Laws of England

Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England was a hugely influential treatise on English law that methodically rendered that massive body of statutes and legal decisions called the "common law" into a coherent system of legal principles intelligible to the lay-person. The Commentaries was the paramount authority on the common-law in the eyes of the American Founders. Its articulation of the logic of the common law was one of the reasons that they chose to establish the American legal system on its basis. Blackstone is still cited today by lawyers and judges in their efforts to articulate the meaning of American laws and the Constitution. The common-law view of freedom of the press found in the Commentaries is more or less what that freedom was understood to mean when it was included in the American Bill of Rights. Blackstone understood the freedom of the press to mean little more than protection against "previous restraint" (now usually called "prior restraint"). In other words, the state could not prevent anyone from publishing anything, but could legitimately punish the publication of nearly anything it perceived dangerous.

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