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.


5 thoughts on “Why is Freedom of Speech Important?

  1. Charitable: I love what you’re doing here. More please.

    Interesting: I’ve always been curious about how ‘freedom of speech’ plays out when one group of people is capable of drowning out another by sheer numbers. Social media reduces this problem a little, but there’s a sort of “loudest people get to dominate discourse” phenomenon which matches the letter of free speech, but not the spirit.

    • Mill sees this as a risk. Also sometimes you just want to go to the grocery store or screw around on twitter without being subjected to noisy arguments all the time.

      I think the ideal is many spaces, some public and some private, with varying norms and levels of freedom of speech, *that don’t try to destroy each other* – a kind of meta-truce between different walled gardens, which the reasonable thing that the “only government restrictions are allowed” argument is pointing at. There should be a public cesspool, but also various refuges from that.

  2. I understand something of the mind of the people who are against freedom of speech.

    The smarter of them probably understand this entire argument and would hypothetically respond with a simple fact: the long term costs laid out here are not as important to them as what their semi-intentional destruction of free speech might gain them in the short run.

    What does the destruction of free speech gain them? It gains them succor, paid out of the public purse, on this single round of political infighting, which is a PRETTY BIG ROUND, considering human history.

    They won’t say this out loud, because in public they are much like Trump: shoveling convenient bullshit faster than it can be cleaned up, as an expedient technique for gaining political power. Their goal is not truth, their goal is power: the power to feel safe right now.

    Imagine the years from 1976 to 2016 in western civilization from the perspective of median people, who tend not to be insight junkies. For them, it is becoming a sort of a hell world.

    Working class wages have become disconnected from gains in labor productivity, the middle class is evaporating, computers sprang out of nowhere and became ubiquitous, mass surveillance of US citizens by the NSA has became the norm, and “decent jobs” are disappearing for inscrutable “macroeconomic reasons”.

    There is a growing feeling of the socioeconomic world pulling apart into layers that it will be hard to move between, and a concern that some of the lower layers might stop existing within 50 years.

    In most cultures, people feel a duty to give make-work to poor relatives, and to not do so is unethical. Thus, many companies and civil service systems that contain “residual middle class job slots” might (in a state of nature) require submission to conservative norms plus cultural co-membership (religious, racial, or otherwise) with whoever is at the top of a given system as a prerequisite for hiring and/or advancement.

    Balkanization is a real fear, especially scary to those whose tribes are not rich or cohesively loyal, and who thus lack the prospect of survival via charity from wealthy kin.

    So imagine that you are poor, tribeless, and socially liberal in that you insist on respect for your individual autonomy as though you were powerful. And you do have some power.

    You might start to be justified in worrying about the prospect of extinction via competitive exclusion… not this generation maybe, but how long until those with no career prospects and no external investments own nothing more than their bodies? How long until body labor can no longer be rented out at a price that beats an amortized robot purchase?

    There is no such thing as a pension any more.

    (All retirement plans are switching to “defined contribution” systems rather than “defined benefit” because our institutions have given up on caring for their serfs. Do people who can barely find a job have the brain to beat robotic investment algorithms? Of course not. Can they really care for themselves in this brave new world? Not within heartless capitalism, with its insistence on contracts and math and property rights, they can’t. They can barely perform arithmetic on fractions. Paternalistic planning is required and absent.)

    So the most numerous and least welfare demanding 52% of those who vote will be identified by polling…

    …perhaps the ones who will be happy with cheap things like marriage certificates and haircuts for student loan owners?

    …perhaps the ones who want cheap things like closed borders and import taxes?

    The general pattern is that votes will authorize the eating of the weakest N% of the rich necessary to feed the cheapest 52%.

    *Maybe* there will be a disruption of the apparent historical trend with regards to mobility and robots, but probably not.

    The desperate people want to feel that their expected 1.8 kids per family will “still have a chance” 25 years from now. Or something. They aren’t making *effective* long term plans. At best they are just hoping that the horse will learn to sing.

    “Let them eat cake” is a famous line, but free speech is a cherry on the cake to people who expect extinction within 50 years in the absence of democratic expropriation of the means of survival from careless elites. They aren’t worried about the perquisites of finding and following the truth.

    The people who care about freedom of speech are the people who already care about the future, because they think they have a future where the nuances of clear thinking and good planning will matter to the alpha of their (or their tribe’s) investment portfolio. If people who value free speech aren’t careful, they will be on the chopping block soon enough.

    I’ve been reading Colleen McCullough lately and I’m reminded of the Siege of Alexandria in 47 BC.

    McCullough portrays Caesar as musing that his manipulation of the Alexandrian mob would have been impossible if the Ptolemies had understood and heeded the nature of the need for panem et circenses in any functioning polis. Rulers have a duty to care for those they rule and if they don’t, the mechanisms of good government (free speech among them) can be overturned.

    Lessons are often forgotten. I anticipate that the 3rd millennium will have its own share of tragedies 😦

  3. I wonder how far back in history this “idea” of freedom of expression goes? 10,000 years? Further?

    Because I’m confident there was a point where the only confines for what we now call “freedom of expression” were our evolutionary and biological challenges. In short, I think the ideology we keep trying to define in our society IS a restriction on freedom of expression (and speech) in and of itself.

    We keep trying to tell each other what is, and isn’t “okay” to say … and when it is and isn’t “okay” to say it (or express it via some other means).

    I’ve always asked the question…

    Why do we need some document to tell us that freedom of expression is okay? For those that actually want to squash the right to express ourselves (speech or otherwise) in the first place. This implies (to me) that there are some of our species that would us our expression against us (through some propaganda or other means).

    What we like, and don’t like to express IS a form of expression in and of itself, no? So let’s just all stop, FULL stop, expressing ourselves then. Problem solved, no more debate. We will (all) walk around like silent zombies.

    Oh, wait, we can’t do that now can we? But some of us WANT to be the ONLY ones who can speak, express etc… so long as “others” don’t get to.

    Mill had produced an excellent set of ideas along these lines. In fact, he inspired my writing here: http://dailyreckoning.com/the-new-face-of-liberty-in-the-digital-age/

    Maybe we just can’t handle true freedom of expression, with all of the good (and bad) consequences that will bring? That might be why we keep debating it, arguing about it, and keep trying to dominate other groups with the idea.

    I don’t know the answer, but I do wonder who might be afraid to express their version of it in our current society.

  4. When free speech comes into conflict with other values, why should free speech win?

    Obviously, it shouldn’t. I assume you meant that rhetorically.

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