What Is Free Speech?

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

- John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, II

Podcast of the Day

What are the limits of expression in a civilized society? T. M. Scanlon addresses this question in this bonus episode which was produced in association with The Open University and originally appeared on Ethics Bites.

Listen to Tim Scanlon on Free Speech

Video of the Day

Short Article of the Day

...The harm of a censorship system is not just that it impoverishes intellectual life; it also fundamentally distorts the rational order in which the natural and spiritual worlds are understood. The censorship system relies on robbing a person of the self-perception that one needs in order to maintain an independent existence. It cuts off one’s access to independence and happiness.

Censoring speech removes the freedom to choose what to take in and to express to others, and this inevitably leads to depression in people. Wherever fear dominates, true happiness vanishes and individual willpower runs dry. Judgments become distorted and rationality itself begins to slip away. Group behavior can become wild, abnormal and violent....

Continue reading Ai Weiwei's article: How Censorship Works

Further Reading

The topic of free speech is one of the most contentious issues in liberal societies. If liberty of expression is not highly valued, as has often been the case, there is no problem; freedom of expression is simply curtailed in favor of other values. It becomes a volatile issue when it is highly valued because only then do the limitations placed upon it become controversial. The first thing to note in any sensible discussion of freedom of speech is that it will have to be limited. Every society places some limits on the exercise of speech because it always takes place within a context of competing values. In this sense, Stanley Fish is correct when he says that there is no such thing as free speech (in the sense of unlimited speech). Free speech is simply a useful term to focus our attention on a particular form of human interaction and the phrase is not meant to suggest that speech should never be limited. One does not have to fully agree with Fish when he says , “free speech in short, is not an independent value but a political prize” (1994,102) but it is the case that no society has existed where speech has not been limited to some extent....

Continue reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Freedom of Speech by David van Mill

Related Topics

 Freedom | Power | Toleration

Each day I post short quotes by great thinkers on a particular philosophical, scientific or historical topic, along with videos, interviews and articles by contemporary thinkers that explore each topic in more detail. Find me on Facebook or Twitter or enter your email below to learn about the ideas that helped shape our world.