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On Freedom of Speech


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According to a recent poll, 40% of young Americans think offensive speech should be outlawed, and a fifth of them believe the First Amendment to be "outdated". Clearly, these are dark days for free speech. Why?

It is our most basic liberty - protecting critics of government policy from punishment, simply for their actions in upholding democracy's most essential element: accountability. Along with the right to a fair and public trial by jury, freedom of thought and speech are the rights that keep tyranny at arm's length.
Yet it seems such ideas are now unpopular, or perhaps unfashionable: most young Americans simply don't feel particularly compelled to defend or utilise them. Freedom of speech is not some sort of outdated legislation like the Second Amendment. It isn't something to be employed once or twice, but suspended at other times. It is - and should always be - eternal, unquestionable, held always in semi-reverent tones. Each generation's duty is to seize the liberty it cries out for - why, then, does this generation fall utterly short?
Many young people nowadays support incursion into this particular liberty due to a fear of offence. Trying to be inoffensive isn't, I grant, inherently wrong - in fact, it's grounded in politeness, empathy, and decency, so by itself is hardly a harmful thing. But there is a difference between being inoffensive and scorning and fearing all offence because, although we don't like to admit it, offence is the most valuable currency in a politically-engaged society. Even when, it seems to you, the conclusion of the issue at hand is irrefutable and inescapable, being outraged and outrageous are both necessary. After all, the difference between the views of the offensive dissident and the prevailing majority is only a matter of timing and perspective. 
Let's say we're discussing the latest political issue at hand - something, say, the one hundred of us in this hypothetical scenario all feel deeply about. Let's also say that, of these one hundred participants in our discussion, ninety-nine of us agree exactly on the solution - all bar one of us. Many people believe such a scenario would be utopian - we have neatly- and boldly-defined limits to what we can say or think about this issue; perfect. 
But what about the one outsider? Should we therefore discount his opinion entirely? 
There are really two seminal works on this subject: John Milton's Areopagitica, and John Stuart Mills' On Liberty. Both of these books (and others on this subject) deal with the problem of the one outsider, and come to the same conclusion: When we are faced with one dissenting view, we must not consider the dissenter's opinion as being equally important as everyone else's. In fact, the dissenter must be given extra protection, since the established view will try to assassinate the dissident view. The belief of this one outsider must be shielded, because it probably required a great deal of concentrated thought to come up with, and an even greater deal of courage to step forward and say. The ninety-nine of us will be horrified; our unchallenged views are being challenged. We will, I think, be offended. But what if the issue was Intelligent Design -- that ninety-nine of us agreed with, shunning evolution? What if the issue was the flatness of the Earth - shunning the person who casts doubt over our baseless claims?  
If we turn a blind eye to the perspective of the one outsider, we are all worse off. We are bound with the manacles of consensus; we are made slaves of our present opinion, because no opposition to it has stepped forwards. Our principles are unharmed, but unchallenged. It's hard to respect an idea that has not seen its adversary in the arena, in the dust and heat. The sharp knife of opposition, wielded by free speech, is turned away from true ideas, regardless of the opinion of consensus. 
Although this issue is close to my heart, and I'm concerned about it, I cannot fear the opinions of this generation about free speech. The tongue and pen are unenslaved, unmanacled; chainless. We need new respect and reverence for these ancient ideas. Above all, we are in need of a renewed sense that these are not the dusty old creeds of outdated reactionaries - the laws of free speech are us. They flow in the lifeblood of democratic society - they are to be used and utilised, unapologetically and unironically. Let's not allow them to gather dust. 

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