We decide for ourselves and face the consequences.

The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage. Thus said the fifth century BC Greek orator Pericles, according to the historian Thucydides. Whether he was right about happiness may be disputed, but the whole history of free speech demonstrates that it needs courage to defend it. Since words and images can have great power, they will always be contested. Even in relatively free countries, the rich and powerful will try to curb them, or bend them to their own advantage. It is always difficult to stand alone against the norms accepted by most people around you. In authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, or faced with what I have called the assassin’s veto, it becomes a matter of life and death.

The survival of free speech therefore depends on the courage of individuals who defend it. There are many examples of this throughout history – and on this site. In the introduction to principle 2, on violence, I mention the names of a few prominent individuals who have paid with their lives for the defence of free speech. Please add, in the comment thread below, any more names or stories that you think we should include. We learn from their examples.

To say “we decide for ourselves and face the consequences” may sound odd when our project is dedicated to formulating principles capable of being widely accepted across countries and cultures. But free speech is an aspect of individual self-determination and each of us must ultimately decide the limits we think appropriate to it. Moreover, part of the case for free speech is that the upholding of good shared principles itself requires people to challenge those principles, so that they are constantly tested and kept sharp. That applies also to the rules governing free speech in a particular place and time.

Courage is a quality indispensable for the defence of free speech, but not the only one. The other is tolerance. These two stand in a certain tension with each other, for tolerance asks us to accept what we do not accept or – to put it another way – to accept while not accepting. If taken too far, we arrive at Karl Popper’s ”paradox of tolerance”: unlimited tolerance leads to the end of tolerance.

In my book, I describe these as “two spirits of liberty”, alluding to a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”. The qualities of courage and tolerance are seldom to be found in equal quantities in the same person. Isaiah Berlin himself was an epitome of tolerance, but less so of courage. Christopher Hitchens, one of Berlin’s fiercest critics, was an epitome of courage, but less so of tolerance. I trace this contrast of two liberal temperaments back through history, pointing to a similar contrast between the brave but intolerant Martin Luther and the tolerant but compromising Erasmus. Yet there is also a certain quiet courage needed to defend tolerance itself against all the “word warriors” (Erasmus’s phrase) and factions competing for our enthusiasm. Just occasionally the two qualities are combined in one great heart: a Václav Havel or a Gandhi.

What is for certain is that the defence of free speech requires both spirits of liberty: tolerance and courage.

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Comments (9)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Die Prinzipien sind gut und schön, sie blenden aber reale Gefahren aus. Zum Beispiel die Gefahr, im Internet Kinderpornografie zu zeigen und zu verkaufen, Kinder oder Jugendliche sexuell zu belästigen, andere Menschen zu beleidigen, zu verletzen oder in ihren Rechten zu beeinträchtigen.

    • I do not see these actions as related to free speech at all, or at least in the terms you mentioned. They are crimes which deserve penalty. But we need to be able to talk about them, as well as discuss what kind of penalties or treatment pedophiles and child pornography merchants should be imposed.

  2. I think that we must be able to challenge limits to free expression as I fear too much restriction allows the powerful in society to control things unfairly.

  3. There is too much room for abuse in this from the dominant powers. ‘National security’ can be construed to be almost anything, allowing limitations upon freedom of speech much at the whim of the government, negating the point.

  4. I think that … the expression “free to challenge all limits” can be misleading and hence any challenge may become violent or even percieved and enforced by the wrong audience. So yes, it should be possible to QUESTION the free expression under a frame of responsible and aware position.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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