The Historical Development of Freedom of Speech
THROUGHOUT history men have fought for freedom of speech. Laws have been passed, wars have been fought, and lives have been lost over the right to express an idea publicly.
Why should such a seemingly natural right have fomented controversy, even to the point of bloodshed? Why have societies, both past and present, found it necessary to restrict or even to prohibit the exercise of this right?
Attitudes toward freedom of speech for the people have swung like a huge pendulum on the clock of time. Sometimes freedom of speech has been viewed as a privilege to be enjoyed. At other times it has been considered a problem to be dealt with by governments or religions.
Since history is replete with accounts of those who struggled for the right to express an opinion publicly, which often led to their being violently persecuted or killed, a review of some of these events should give us insight into the problem.
Students of history may well recall the Greek philosopher Socrates (470-399 B.C.E.), whose views and teachings were seen as a corrupting influence on the morals of the youths of Athens. This caused great consternation among political and religious leaders of the Greek hierarchy and led to his death. His plea before the jury that eventually convicted him remains one of the most eloquent defenses of freedom of speech: “If you offered to let me off this time on condition that I am not any longer to speak my mind in this search for wisdom, and that if I am caught doing this again I shall die, I should say to you, ‘Men of Athens, I shall obey the God rather than you. While I have life and strength I shall never cease to follow philosophy and to exhort and persuade any one of you whom I happen to meet. For this, be assured the God commands . . .’ And, Athenians, I should go on to say, ‘Either acquit me or not; but understand that I shall never act differently, even if I have to die for it many times.’”
As time moved on, the early history of Rome saw the pendulum swing toward fewer restrictions, only to swing back to more restrictions as the empire expanded. This marked the beginning of the darkest period for freedom of speech. During the reign of Tiberius (14-37 C.E.), no tolerance was shown toward those who spoke out against the government or its policies. And it was not only Rome that opposed freedom of speech; it was at this time that Jewish leaders forced Pontius Pilate to put Jesus to death for his teaching and also ordered his apostles to stop preaching. These too were willing to die rather than stop.—Acts 5:28, 29.
During most periods of history, civil rights granted by governments were often altered or withdrawn at will, which led to continued struggles for freedom of speech. Starting in the Middle Ages, some of the people demanded a written statement spelling out their rights, with limitations placed on government control of those rights. As a result, significant bills of rights began to be formulated. Among these was the Magna Carta, a landmark in the field of human rights. Later came the English Bill of Rights (1689), the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), and the United States Bill of Rights (1791).
The 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries heard the voices of leading figures of history speak out for freedom of expression. In 1644 the English poet John Milton, who may best be remembered for Paradise Lost, wrote the famous pamphlet Areopagitica as an argument against restrictions of freedom of the press.
The 18th century witnessed the growth of freedom of speech in England, although restrictions remained. In America the colonies were pressing for the right to freedom of speech, both oral and printed. The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, September 28, 1776, for example, stated in part: “That the people have a right to freedom of speech, and of writing, and publishing their sentiments, therefore the freedom of the press ought not to be restrained.”
This statement was an inspiration for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, which declared the thinking of the founders of the American Constitution on cherished rights of the people: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Nineteenth-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill published his essay “On Liberty” in 1859. It is often quoted and has been referred to as one of the greatest of all statements in the cause of free speech.
The battles for the right to speak freely in public, however, did not end with the arrival of the supposedly enlightened years of this 20th century. For example, because of efforts to restrict freedom of speech in America, proclamations defending that freedom have resounded from the halls of justice, both from lower courts and from the Supreme Court of the United States.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., of the U.S. Supreme Court, stated his belief in free speech in a number of court decisions. Describing the test of free speech, he said: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”—United States v. Schwimmer, 1928.
It is disregard for this principle that has fomented court battles that keep the pendulum swinging between freedom and coercion. Too often the idea is, “Free speech for me—but not for thee.” In his book by this name, Nat Hentoff cites instances in which avid defenders of the First Amendment swing with the pendulum from right to left according to their viewpoints. He cites cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed some of its own decisions, including some having to do with cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses and their years of fighting for the right to speak freely about their religious convictions. Regarding them, he wrote: “Members of that faith have contributed greatly through the decades toward expanding liberty of conscience through constitutional lawsuits.”
Many legal analysts and modern historians have written profusely about the numerous court battles fought to safeguard freedom of speech late in this 20th century, not only in America but in other countries as well. Freedom of speech is never guaranteed. Although governments may boast of the freedom they extend to their people, it can be lost in a change of government or of court justices, as experience has shown. Jehovah’s Witnesses have been at the forefront in battling for this cherished freedom.
In his book These Also Believe, Professor C. S. Braden writes: “They [Jehovah’s Witnesses] have performed a signal service to democracy by their fight to preserve their civil rights, for in their struggle they have done much to secure those rights for every minority group in America. When the civil rights of any one group are invaded, the rights of no other group are safe. They have therefore made a definite contribution to the preservation of some of the most precious things in our democracy.”
Freedom-loving people are hard-pressed to understand why some governments and religions would withhold this freedom from their people. It is denial of a basic human right, and many people throughout the world suffer under suppression of this freedom. Will attitudes toward freedom of speech, even in countries that enjoy this basic right, continue to swing back and forth like a pendulum? Will the idea of freedom of speech be used to justify immoral or obscene language? Already the courts are struggling with the controversy.
[Picture on page 3]
Socrates argued for freedom of speech
Musei Capitolini, Roma