From the ancient agora of Athens to the digital forums of today, the concept of freedom of speech has been a pivotal cornerstone of human civilization. Tracing its evolution provides insight into society’s values, challenges, and the ceaseless struggle for individual rights.
The freedom to speak one’s mind without fear of retribution is a value that many hold dear today. But this liberty wasn’t always available, nor was it universally accepted. To truly appreciate its significance, one must venture through history, exploring key moments that defined, challenged, or expanded the notion of free speech.
Timeline of Freedom of Speech
Throughout history, the concept of free speech has been both championed and challenged. It evolved from simple participatory rights in ancient democracies to encompass broader ideas of personal expression, freedom of the press, and the right to dissent against authority. The journey of this concept is intertwined with the histories of various civilizations, the development of democratic governance, and the continual struggle for human rights.
5th Century BC
- Ancient Athens: The word “isegoria” described the equal right of citizens to participate in public debate in the democratic assembly.
- Socrates: While Athens celebrated free speech, Socrates was sentenced to drink poison in 399 BC for his philosophical inquiries, indicating that absolute freedom of speech wasn’t recognized even in Athens.
- Diogenes: According to the “Lives of Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius of his namesake (and no relation) Diogenes (of Sinope) “Being asked what was the most beautiful thing in the world, [Diogenes] replied, ‘Freedom of speech [parrhêsia].'”
1st Century AD
- Rome: The concept of “Libertas” referred to the Roman idea of liberty, encompassing free speech. However, like Athens, Rome had limits and prosecuted individuals for “maiestas” (treason), which included dangerous speech.
7th, 8th, and 9th Centuaries
- Islamic Golden Age: Noted scholars such as Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, and Avicenna emphasized the value of free rational inquiry and discussion, contributing indirectly to the later development of free speech concepts in Europe.
- 1215: Magna Carta: While not directly addressing free speech, this document limited the power of the monarchy and laid the groundwork for the development of individual rights in English law.
- 1517: Martin Luther’s “95 Theses”: By challenging the Catholic Church’s practices, Luther not only sparked the Protestant Reformation but also underlined the importance of questioning authority and the freedom to voice dissent.
- 1644: John Milton’s “Areopagitica”: A polemic against the 1644 Licensing Order, it passionately defended free press and speech.
- 1689: English Bill of Rights: Granted “freedom of speech in Parliament” after King James II was overthrown.
- 1722: Benjamin Franklin as “Silence Dogood”: “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech”, Franklin was 16 when this was published under the pen name Silence Dogood in the New England Courant. Franklin’s writings and contributions emphasize the paramount importance of unfettered speech in a democracy and he continually advocated for the significance of free speech in ensuring democracy.
- 1735: John Peter Zenger Trial in New York: Established the principle that truthful statements about public officials could not be prosecuted as libel, setting a precedent in colonial America.
- 1763: Voltaire’s “Traité sur la tolérance”: Includes “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.” This sentiment was later succinctly paraphrased by his biographer as “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” capturing the quintessence of free speech: valuing the right to express even unpopular opinions.
- 1776: U.S. Declaration of Independence: While primarily a statement of political autonomy, it embodies the spirit of individual rights and freedoms.
- 1787: U.S. Constitution: Establishes the framework of government and the rights of the citizens.
- 1789: Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man”: Arguing for individual rights and free expression, Paine’s work is a cornerstone of Enlightenment thinking about democracy and liberty.
- 1789: French Revolution: The “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” granted freedom of speech, a direct influence of Enlightenment thinking.
- 1791: First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: Prohibited Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely.
- 1845: Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”: An autobiographical account that not only depicted the horrors of slavery but also highlighted how the suppression of knowledge and speech was key in maintaining the oppressive system.
- 1859: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”: A foundational text for liberal democracy, it argued against tyranny of the majority and for individual rights, including freedom of speech.
- 1913: Emmeline Pankhurst’s “Freedom or Death” Speech: As a leader of the British suffragette movement, Pankhurst’s speeches underscored the importance of free expression, especially for marginalized groups. Her passionate oratories rallied many to the cause, emphasizing that suppression of speech is akin to suppression of rights.
- 1932: Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”: The book presents a nightmarish vision of a future society where free thought and speech has been conquered by excess.
- 1945: George Orwell’s “1984”: A dystopian novel illustrating the perils of totalitarianism and the suppression of free thought and speech.
- 1948: Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 19 affirms that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”
- 1950: European Convention on Human Rights: Established the right to freedom of expression as fundamental.
- 1953: Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451”: Highlights the consequences of suppressing dissenting ideas.
- 1960: Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Through its portrayal of racial injustice and moral growth, this novel highlights the essentiality of open dialogue in confronting and addressing societal issues.
- 1971: US Supreme Court ruling on “The Pentagon Papers”: The US Supreme Court ruled that “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” after investigating “The Pentagon Papers” a series of classified documents released by Daniel Ellsberg.
- 1988: Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”: Noteworthy not just for its content, but the aftermath of its publication. The novel became a flashpoint for discussions on free speech, blasphemy, and the limits of artistic freedom in the face of religious sentiments.
- 1992: “Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media” Documentary: Chomsky says “I’m saying if you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.” and “If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of freedom of speech. There’s two positions you can have on freedom of speech, and you can decide which position you want.” Often misquoted as “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” This a profound assertion that emphasizes that the true test of free speech lies in its defence even when it’s inconvenient or uncomfortable.
- 1998: Neal Boortz’s “The Terrible Truth About Liberals”: Where he famously states “Free speech is meant to protect unpopular speech. Popular speech, by definition, needs no protection.”
- 2004-2006: Social Media Emerges: Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter founded: Social Media platforms become central to discussions on free speech boundaries. Raising questions about the difference between responsible expression and mere noise in an age of instant communication. Building on platforms and digital media they reshape communication and dissemination of information globally.
- 2006: WikiLeaks founded: Founded by Julian Assange, WikiLeaks begins publishing classified and secret documents. Highlights the tension between transparency, national security, and free speech in the digital domain.
- 2008: British National Party members: In 2008, Wikileaks published the names, addresses and contact information of more than 13,000 members of the British National Party.
- 2009: 9/11 pager messages: About 573,000 intercepted pager messages sent during the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States were published by Wikileaks.
- 2010: The helicopter attack: In 2010, Wikileaks published a video from a US military helicopter showing the killing of civilians in Baghdad, Iraq.
- 2010: US Army Intelligence: Wikileaks has published hundreds of thousands of documents leaked by former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning.
- 2015: The Sony Pictures hack: A leak of more than 170,000 emails and 20,000 documents from movie studio Sony Pictures was published on Wikileaks in 2015.
- 2016: Democrat emails: Wikileaks published thousands of hacked emails from the account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign boss John Podesta, in the run-up to the US presidential election in 2016.
- 2013: Reform of Section 5, Public Order Act, UK: UK parliament amends Section 5 of the Public Order Act, removing the word “insulting” from the legislation. Demonstrates the delicate balance between preventing harassment and safeguarding freedom of expression.
Modern Free Speech Issues
In recent times, the debate over freedom of speech has been invigorated by platforms like WikiLeaks, which prioritize transparency and hold the powerful accountable by exposing classified information. Such actions, while celebrated by some as the epitome of free expression, are criticized by others who view them as threats to national security. Similarly, discussions around the Reform of Section 5 in the UK Public Order Act touch upon the delicate balance between preventing harassment and ensuring open dialogue. As the digital age advances, the realm of free speech extends beyond tangible borders, complicating its interpretation and application.
Some of the most significant challenges include:
- Hate Speech vs. Free Speech: The delineation between free speech and hate speech is a contentious one. In an increasingly polarized world, what some champion as freedom of expression, others denounce as propagating hate or inciting violence. This raises questions about where societies should draw the line and how they can preserve the sanctity of open dialogue without enabling harm.
- Rise of Cancel Culture: In recent years, the phenomenon of ‘cancel culture’ has emerged, where individuals or entities are boycotted or ostracized for perceived offensive statements or actions. While this can be seen as a form of societal accountability, it also poses questions about the consequences for freedom of speech. Does cancel culture discourage open dialogue? Or is it a necessary check in the digital age?
- Private Platforms and Freedom of Speech: The advent of social media has revolutionized the way information is disseminated and discussions are held. However, these platforms are owned by private corporations. This presents a quandary: Should these platforms be treated as public squares, subject to free speech laws? Or, being private entities, do they have the right to curate content as they see fit? This debate is at the forefront of discussions on freedom of speech in the digital age.
From its foundational inception in ancient civilizations to its intricate conceptualization in today’s democracies, freedom of speech remains both a beacon and battleground. Its evolution not only mirrors humanity’s own odyssey – one of enlightenment, confrontation, and a persistent quest for liberty – but also its enduring challenges. In the current digital era, where the boundaries between public and private discourse blur, and where every voice can echo globally, freedom of speech faces renewed scrutiny.
The divisive debates around hate speech versus free speech, the implications of cancel culture, and the role of private platforms in shaping public discourse underscore the complexities of preserving this right. They remind us that while our platforms for expression have evolved, the underlying principles of open dialogue, accountability, and respect are more crucial than ever. As we navigate these uncharted waters, our collective responsibility is not just to champion the right to speak, but also to listen, understand, and discern. Only with such vigilance can we ensure that the pillar of free speech remains strong and unyielding amidst the ever-changing societal currents.