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Steven Pinker on ‘Why Free Speech Is Fundamental’

While the First Amendment provides the legal basis for protecting free speech and open debate in many forums, it’s critically important to remember the moral and practical reasons why freedom of expression should be defended independent of the law. Harvard University psychology professor and bestselling author Steven Pinker knows this well, and he lays out a series of compelling arguments for freedom of speech in The Boston Globe today.

Pinker picks up on a common assertion made by those demanding censorship—that sure, we all like free speech, but some ideas simply cross the line. What line? Whatever the would-be censor subjectively deems acceptable, of course. After all, as Pinker points out, Pope Francis believes that “you cannot make fun of the faith of others,” and Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons have been labeled “toxic talk” not worthy of protection. Yet others have defended the same cartoons as worthy satire, and people routinely mock others’ faiths (just ask a Scientologist).

Pinker reminds readers that however strongly they might feel a certain belief is unassailable, huge numbers of people throughout history have felt equally strongly about beliefs that society now largely considers plainly false:

Everyone knows that the discovery that the Earth revolves around the sun rather than vice-versa had to overcome fierce resistance from ecclesiastical authority. But the Copernican revolution was just the first event in a cataclysm that would make our current understanding of the world unrecognizable to our ancestors. Everything we know about the world — the age of our civilization, species, planet, and universe; the stuff we’re made of; the laws that govern matter and energy; the workings of the body and brain — came as insults to the sacred dogma of the day. We now know that the beloved convictions of every time and culture may be decisively falsified, doubtless including some we hold today.

While the right to free speech isn’t absolute, Pinker writes, it is “essential to democracy” and to our ability to discover more about the world we live in. It should, therefore, “be abrogated only in carefully circumscribed cases.”

We carve out exceptions for fraud, libel, extortion, divulging military secrets, and incitement to imminent lawless action. But these exceptions must be strictly delineated and individually justified; they are not an excuse to treat speech as one fungible good among many. Despots in so-called “democratic republics” routinely jail their opponents on charges of treason, libel, and inciting lawlessness. Britain’s lax libel laws have been used to silence critics of political figures, business oligarchs, Holocaust deniers, and medical quacks. Even Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous exception to free speech — falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater — is easily abused, not least by Holmes himself. He coined the meme in a 1919 Supreme Court case that upheld the conviction of a man who distributed leaflets encouraging men to resist the draft during World War I, a clear expression of opinion in a democracy.

Read more of Pinker’s thoughtful free speech advocacy in The Boston Globe. If you missed it, be sure to check out his keynote address from FIRE’s 15th anniversary gala last October, from which today’s article is adapted.

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