Olivia Pierson on Free Speech

by Olivia Pierson

“To preserve the freedom of the human mind then & freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, & speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”

Enlightenment hero Thomas Jefferson wrote these words in a letter to his friend William G Munford as they discussed the importance of science and advancing a culture of freedom for early America.

It is instructive how closely linked freedom of speech was to freedom of thought in Jefferson’s mind. The realm of thoughts and ideas is a sacred realm which literally no man, no tyrant, no outside oppressor can touch, simply because it happens in the privacy of our own heads. Our words to each other are an expression of those thoughts and ideas, but also a buffer zone separating thoughts from actions.   

Think of free speech as a midway point, a natural regulator, between thoughts and actions. It remains the proper symposium to challenge ourselves and others as to which actions should be rightly acted upon, and which should be disregarded as improper. It is so important as a human principle that Jefferson felt every person in a free society should be ready to devote themselves to martyrdom in order to preserve it. Free speech serves as a robust bulwark to fine tune the thinking of human beings before we take actions which may be ill considered or cause harm. Free speech truly is holy ground – and I do not invoke the use of a religious vernacular mindlessly.

Note that whenever a totalitarian regime of government asserts control over a nation of people, free speech is always the first brutal casualty. During the 20th Century alone we can draw on many instances of this spectre: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, Hussein’s Iraq, Assad’s Syria, the Al Saud’s Arabia, Khomeini’s Iran and the Kim Dynasty’s North Korea.

In the West, freedom of speech is a daily hallmark of our civilisation, and with it has always been the freedom to offend. We may absolutely detest the nonsense which spews out of other people’s mouths – but we have to fight it within the realm of our wits with the expression of a better idea, not with our fists and not with our guns and knives.

Read the rest at oliviapierson.org

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