Before the American colonists declared independence from Great Britain their self described original intentions were to secure their “traditional rights as Englishmen.”
It seems strange to us today that Americans would say this, but we have to understand that American liberty was inherited from English liberty.
Without the Magna Carta, John Locke and the English Bill of Rights of 1689 there would have never been a Declaration of Independence, a Thomas Jefferson or a U.S. Constitution.
One of the key contributions that English liberty has offered today’s world is the early-modern concept of “free speech,” a concept that still holds a sacrosanct position in the minds of many.
One of the most influential thinkers on English liberty, John Milton, offers us a lesson on free speech and why we should think twice before censoring speech that we might find disagreeable.
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In the 1640s the English parliament imposed legislation that introduced restrictions and censorship on printing and on speech.
As an act of protest Milton delivered a written speech to parliament titled Areopagitica, named after the hill in ancient Athens where the citizens of the day would debate ideas. Milton’s work on this subject is worth a read, but for the purposes of this column I would like to explore just a few particular ideas that are presented in Areopagitica.
Milton passionately asserts that when speech is censored it not only affects people directly today, but it also prevents people from voicing their ideas tomorrow.
Milton suggests that freedom of speech does not only involve the rights of the person speaking, but the right of the person to hear as well. One’s own right to hear is just as involved in the concept of free speech as one’s right to speak. Therefore censorship not only silences, it deafens. Christopher Hitchens wrote that we should “not take refuge in the false security of consensus.”
Freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently. The problem is that we have a tendency to either adopt or ignore this idea when it suits us to do so.
We must have consistency and impartiality.
We are at risk of reversing the advances of the Enlightenment.
Increases in censorship in public life and on college campuses by the left legitimately threaten free speech.
If we censor those who we disagree with today, it may come back to bite us tomorrow.
The views expressed in columns do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Auburn Plainsman.
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