Why do we have free speech in this country? Lots of reasons, actually, but tonight I’ll talk about two related reasons that seem to me to get to the heart of the matter.
In Constitutional Law class in college, I was assigned a book called Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government, published in 1948 by Alexander Meiklejohn. It is arguably the most influential book on free speech ever written. All I remembered from the book was the author’s position that political speech is the most important type of speech and deserves the most protection.
Recently, I went back and took another look. I had completely forgotten the self-government part. It didn’t stick because I hadn’t been taught about self-government anywhere in my schooling. The bottom was already dropping out of education when I went through grade school in the 1960s. Fast forward 40 years to 2009. I became a Tea Partier and learned about popular sovereignty for the first time.
And this is why we have free speech. Free speech is necessary for self-government - popular sovereignty. We the People rule ourselves. We don’t have a king or a tiny elite ruling over us. Therefore, we must have all the information we need in order to make our sovereign decisions. As James Madison put it:
It takes a long time to cultivate a culture of free expression. It doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people, so it requires maintenance to keep a culture of tolerance for the expression of unpopular viewpoints thriving.
That to me is the heart of the matter. We have free speech because we are sovereigns with the right and obligation of making fully informed decisions, and because we must possess the requisite character to govern ourselves. Every time an unpopular viewpoint is suppressed or people censor themselves, we lose a little bit of our capacity for self-government. Lose enough of that capacity, and we will find we are no longer sovereign, but subjects once more. The forces that want to shut down free speech are in essence trying to turn the clock back to a time when lords and masters, not We the People, ruled the land.