Why is Freedom of Speech Important?

Why is free speech important? When free speech comes into conflict with other values, why should free speech win?

I think a lot of us have only a vague answer to these questions. Free speech is just a good thing. We don’t think much about why free speech is good, just that it’s a semi-sacred value.

And so when free speech is threatened, we don’t have many arguments for why it should prevail, especially in conflict with other legitimate, emotionally resonant values.

Ironically, this is an illustration of why free speech is important – according to J. S. Mill.

I constantly encounter popular treatments of free speech ethics that appear to be entirely ignorant of Mill’s seminal, extremely short contribution to the canon of philosophy on freedom of expression. Mill’s paragraphs are long and his speech is archaic – he’s not tweetable. There are many more exciting things to read and look at. And so many of us who care about free speech have not even read his 16,000-word treatise on the subject (Chapter 2 of On Liberty).

I aspire here to tl;dr Mill’s work, and present his urgent and living reasons that free speech is important, and why it should weigh heavily against other values.

Government Interference

One of the most depressing recent texts dealing with free speech is xkcd 1357, which propounds the common misconception that free speech is only about government interference. Mill says that private restrictions on speech are much more important, and that legal restrictions on speech are harmful primarily by legitimizing those private restrictions. A person who is independently wealthy, Mill says, and need not care about the opinion of others, will not censor himself; but most of us have to work, and more importantly, rely on the goodwill of others to feel like decent human beings. We may not be jailed for voicing a controversial opinion, but we risk our jobs and the good feeling of our neighbors when we step outside the Overton window. Mill notes that in his day, in England, where few legal restrictions on expression exist, spouting controversial opinions was even less common than in countries in which those opinions were legally proscribed. Social proscriptions on speech have an enormous effect on which ideas are expressed. So why should we want terrible opinions expressed? Why shouldn’t we just “show people the door”?


One reason that freedom of expression is important is that we are not infallible. What we conceive to be contemptible heresy might actually be true. There are many historical examples. And even if it is not true in total, horrible ideas may contain fractions of truth, which we ignore at our peril. We should allow freedom of expression, because we might be wrong. But Mill’s remaining justifications for free speech deal with speech that is incorrect – it is important to allow expression of false ideas, just as much as true ideas.

Mill notes that even the Catholic Church (which he calls “the most intolerant of churches,” a veneer of anti-Catholicism disguising sincere respect) provides for a “Devil’s advocate” at beatification proceedings. When an entity is sincerely concerned with truth, it encourages, rather than suppresses, vicious and uncomfortable speech. This is also the scientific ideal.

Possibility of Correction

In societies that allow free expression, free from both private and governmental suppression, incorrect views may be aired – and corrected. In suppressive societies, incorrect views fester (“smoulder” as Mill puts it), never expressed publicly and never corrected. Wrongness can survive in individual minds and private communities much longer without freedom of speech than under a regime of freedom of expression. Only in an environment of freedom of expression can wrongness be met and corrected.

Knowing the Foundations

Perhaps more importantly, in a society in which dissenting views are rarely expressed, the prevailing views are often held as mere slogans or prejudices, with people rarely understanding the justifications or arguments for why the prevailing view is correct. In my introductory example, I ask why free speech is important. But if free speech is never challenged as a value, how can we be intellectually and emotionally aware of the foundations and reasons why free speech is good? Challenges to free speech (and other doctrines) are a gift, allowing us to reexamine why we believe in them in the first place.

Dissent, in this framework, should not be suppressed – it is a valuable gift, allowing everyone to learn or revisit why they believe in the prevailing doctrine in the first place.

Mill says,

Instead of a vivid conception and a living belief, there remain only a few phrases retained by rote; or, if any part, the shell and husk only of the meaning is retained, the finer essence being lost….

[E]ven if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost, or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground, and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.

Mill says it behooves us to be more familiar with our opponent’s case than with our own. And if our opponents are too scared of mob justice to speak their cases, how can we know our own?

The greatest orator, save one, of antiquity, has left it on record that he always studied his adversary’s case with as great, if not with still greater, intensity than even his own. What Cicero practised as the means of forensic success, requires to be imitated by all who study any subject in order to arrive at the truth. He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion….Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. This is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of, else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty.

Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition, even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavored to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up.

Mill anticipates the Ideological Turing Test: to put oneself in the place of one’s interlocutor, and give his arguments in a way indistinguishable from how he would present them himself. It is much more difficult to do this in the absence of vocal opponents. We should be thankful for arguments like this against free speech, for they sharpen and bring into living clarity the arguments for why free speech should exist.

Cognitive Handcuffing

Whether the ideas to be potentially suppressed are true or false, suppressing the expression of ideas limits the mental space of thinkers. Timid people who nonetheless possess subtle and penetrating minds constrain their mental spaces to contain only prevailing ideas. We are deprived of the output of these thinkers, to the extent that they might countenance (and accept or reject) controversial ideas. Mill says:

Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral?

Humans Are Dumb

Another objection to freedom of speech that Mill deals with is the possibility that most humans are pretty dumb. In modern terms, when confronted with evidence contradicting their positions, they tend to believe their original positions even harder (the “backfire effect”). Humans are not, in general, very subtle and nuanced in abstract thought. Why not leave the thinking to the smarter people who know what’s best, and censor what the masses hear?

Mill says that even if we concede that this is true, there is still a need for freedom of expression among the philosophers. And if the philosophers require this information, it is very difficult to keep it from the masses of humanity. In our present world in which “the internet interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” Mill is prescient when he says

[I]n the present state of the world, it is practically impossible that writings which are read by the instructed can be kept from the uninstructed. If the teachers of mankind are to be cognisant of all that they ought to know, everything must be free to be written and published without restraint.


Free speech is not some copybook heading or slogan with no real-world consequences. We lose real and measurable benefits when expression is suppressed, whether the idea expressed is true or false.

I cannot compete with Mill for eloquence; I highly recommend reading Chapter 2 of On Liberty. (Come on, you know you read 16,000 words of twitter in a day.) But I hope I have presented, in skeletal form, his most important arguments for why free speech is important, and should be valued even against other legitimately important concerns. Free speech never truly exists in a pure form, but when we aspire to it, we clear the way for excellence and truth – even when the speech in question is vile and false.

Self-Modification in Game Theory

I have been reading Talking Prices, Olav Velthuis’ book on the sociology and economics of the contemporary art market. Velthuis is interested in how cold and tidy economic realities are built out of messy human narratives: what do prices mean, in different contexts?

One of the interesting facts Velthuis mentions is the commissions gallerists receive in the Dutch gallery market. Commissions for mosts artists are between 40 and 50 percent. But, Velthuis says, they rarely exceed 50 percent: to do so is seen as a moral violation.

Velthuis says:

The commission that a dealer receives from an artist is not simply established on the basis of mutual bargaining power. Instead, negotiations about commissions are phrased in terms of entitlements, fairness, and, again, desert. In these negotiations, not only the time and energy of artists are at stake, but also those of dealers themselves. Says a Dutch gallery owner: “I make big efforts for my artists, among others editing and publishing small catalogues on individual artists written by recognized people in the field. That’s why I am inclined to ask 50 percent of artists. Especially given the fact that one of the most renowned artists I represent only wants to have 50 percent, it is not done to ask less of young, relatively unknown artists.” Commissions higher than 50 percent are considered “unethical,” however. Dealers who do ask more than this percentage violate a moral code, since they take advantage of the multitude of artists who are desperately looking for a gallery to represent them. Commissions lower than 50 percent are also legitimated in moral terms: “If paintings are starting to sell for 150,000 dollars, why would I take 75,000? I don’t really deserve it,” as a New York dealer explained.

Velthuis at p. 139, citations omitted.

The 50 percent “ethical” line is interesting. Many artists just starting out have little bargaining power, and would settle for a commission higher than 50 percent if it were offered. It is reminiscent of the results of the Ultimatum Game (in which one participant must divide a sum between himself and a recipient, and the recipient can then accept or refuse the offer – and if he refuses, neither party gets anything) and the Dictator Game (in which one participant divides a sum and the recipient has no power to refuse). In both cases, participants commonly offer much more than zero. In the Ultimatum Game case, recipients commonly refuse offers of less than 50 percent. In the Dictator Game case, participants are particularly likely to offer 50 percent when they are not anonymous – that is, if their reputation is at stake, as with the gallerists. Presumably the young artists have little bargaining power; should one refuse, another will gladly take his place. The gallerist’s situation is probably more comparable to the Dictator Game.

Humans have a taste for “altruistic punishment” – punishing unfair behavior in others, even at cost to themselves. Retribution is a major motive in criminal justice; capital punishment may have little deterrent effect, but many governments impose it at great cost nonetheless, indicating that deterrence (and even incapacitation) is not the only motivation being served by criminal punishment.

Since we are aware that humans have a taste for altruistic punishment, we guide our actions with this in mind. We act “fairly” (e.g. in the Dictator Game) even when it is not in our pecuniary interests to do so, in order to be perceived as fair and to avoid incurring reputational costs – and to avoid punishment, even when it is not available to the other party in the particular game we are playing.


There was an interesting discussion on LessWrong a few years ago, in which Yvain suggested a way to minimize harm: if someone appears to be offended, and in pain, as a result of your actions, immediately cease those actions, even if you can’t understand why the person would be in pain. Vladimir_M countered that, were this to be come a norm, it would create an incentive to self-modify in order to feel pain at the slightest transgression of one’s beliefs. fburnaby sums it up:

reducing the offense I cause directly increases net utility (Yvain)
reducing the offense I cause creates a world with stronger incentives for offense-taking, which is likely to substantially decrease net utility in the long-term (Vladmir_M)

Self-modification is always a risk in game theory situations. I think it’s interesting that people have already self-modified in this way: being willing to incur costs to oneself in order to promote fairness, from the emotion of “spite” that motivates altruistic punishment.

Kevin Simler has written about crying as a particular human behavior that acts as a costly signal of pain, and invites offers of friendship “at a discount.” Evolution has given us ways to signal our pain in a costly manner.

But self-modifying to feel pain more easily would usually incur reputational costs. We have terms like “crybaby,” “whiner,” and “drama queen” precisely because we recognize that some people may be incentivized to express an excessive amount of pain. However, those with high social status or social value may be particularly likely to over-express pain, as they are less likely to be mocked or ostracized for doing it. This is the “cry-bully” phenomenon: those with little fear of social ostracism or judgment may express excessive pain or offense against those less powerful (e.g. the outgroup), and get away with it without reputational costs.

Two observations, in sum:

  1. A social norm of giving in to any expression of offense or pain will ultimately result in more offense and pain.

  2. Those with high social status will express offense and pain at a lower threshold, often causing harm to those of lower social status.