Some persons say the government should have power to censor opinions that most people consider offensive and un-American. This argument overlooks the fact that majorities are often wrong. Their censorship decisions would suppress valuable information and cause other harm.
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said public receptiveness to a newly discovered truth often goes through three stages: At first the truth is ridiculed, then it is violently opposed, and finally it is accepted as self-evident.
So if a majority is allowed to censor a new truth that’s at the stage of being resisted by the general public, society’s acceptance of the truth would be slowed and possibly prevented. As a result, people would remain in ignorance and error about the subject.
Martin Luther King Jr., whose ideas about racial equality and integration were opposed by large majorities of Americans in the 1950s, knew the importance of protecting minority views. He said: “The hope of the world is still in dedicated minorities. The trailblazers in human, academic, and religious freedom have always been in the minority.”
In recognizing the same fact, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said people should not be concerned that their views are supported by only a small minority. “Nobody should fear to be eccentric in opinion,” he explained, “for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”
George Bernard Shaw similarly observed, “All great truths begin as blasphemies.”
Because no one can determine in advance which minority views will ultimately prove to be correct, the Founding Fathers wanted an open marketplace of ideas. This would allow all views – including the most unpopular ones – to compete for acceptance by the public.
The Founders provided in the Constitution, therefore, that freedom of speech is a fundamental right that cannot be taken away by a majority.
Even if an unpopular idea is wrong, it can still be valuable. It helps society better understand the correct views that are opposed to it.
When only one side of an issue is heard, people do not obtain a full understanding of the subject. And the side they do hear can easily become stale, rote, lifeless and meaningless.
But when the other side is examined, the result is often an enhanced understanding of the subject and a greater appreciation of the correct position.
As the philosopher John Stuart Mill said about the harm that censorship inflicts on people: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
For this reason, we should be thankful for stupid people, as long as there aren’t too many of them.
On most issues, no side is totally correct and truth generally lies somewhere between the various positions. Thus, both the majority and minority can benefit from hearing each other’s views.
Walter Lippmann noted: “The opposition is indispensable. A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters.”
John Stuart Mill put it this way: “Though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”
As the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
Censoring the views of those holding minority opinions can cause them to become more radical and committed in opposing the government. They view the ban as confirming that the government is unjust, oppressive, and unable to answer their arguments.
And with public debate prohibited, they are more likely to express their increased anger through other means. Freedom of speech gave them a harmless and even constructive means of “blowing off steam” about grievances.
But with this outlet closed, the possibility increases that they will resort to violent or other antisocial outlets in opposing the government. Because the government has used physical force rather than arguments against them, they may very well respond in kind.
As U.S. Senator William E. Borah said: “When you drive men from the public arena, where debate is free, you send them to the cellar, where revolutions are born. ‘Better an uproar than a whisper.'”
Moreover, the censorship victims are often viewed, in the eyes of many, as martyrs for freedom and worthy of admiration. At the same time, the government looks stupid, brutish, and repressive.
The consequences are greater public sympathy and support for the government’s opponents.
When the U.S. has occasionally forgotten the value of free speech, regrettable things happened..
The results have included the Alien and Sedition Acts, which attempted to outlaw certain speech as being “seditious.” And there was the suppression of literature supporting the rights of women and African Americans.
Also banned have been works such as Tarzan, Little Red Riding Hood, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Wizard of Oz, Huckleberry Finn, and the dictionary.
In the U.S., as in other countries, history shows that government cannot be trusted to decide what information the public should be allowed to receive.
For these reasons, the Constitution trusts the people – and not the government – to judge the value of competing information in an open marketplace of ideas.
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. explained: “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market. . . . That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.”
Likewise, Judge Learned Hand said the Constitution “presupposes that right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection.”
Thomas Jefferson maintained that the same approach should apply to even the most subversive speech. He stated in his First Inaugural Address: “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
The Framers of the Constitution were convinced that, in an open marketplace of ideas, truth would eventually prevail in any competition with error.