Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIV.: the right of free speech. - Social Statics
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CHAPTER XIV.: the right of free speech. - Herbert Spencer, Social Statics 
Social Statics: or, The Conditions essential to Happiness specified, and the First of them Developed, (London: John Chapman, 1851).
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the right of free speech.
The utterance of thought being one species of action, there arises from the proposition that every man is free within specified bounds to do what he wills, the self-evident corollary, that, with the like qualification, he is free to say what he wills; or, in other words, as the rights of his fellow-men form the only legitimate restraint upon his deeds, so likewise do they form the only legitimate restraint upon his words.
There are two modes in which speech may exceed the ordained limits. It may be used for the propagation of slander, which, as we have seen in a foregoing chapter, involves a disregard of moral obligation; or it may be used in inciting and directing another to injure a third party. In this last case, the instigator, although not personally concerned in the trespass proposed by him, must be considered as having virtually committed it. We should not exonerate an assassin who pretended that his dagger was guilty of the murder laid to his charge rather than himself. We should reply, that the having moved a dagger with the intention of taking away life, constituted his crime. Following up the idea, we must also assert that he who, by bribes or persuasion, moved the man who moved the dagger, is equally guilty with his agent. He had just the same intention, and similarly used means for its fulfilment; the only difference being that he produced death through a more complicated mechanism. As, however, no one will argue that the interposing of an additional lever between a motive force and its ultimate effect, alters the relationship between the two, so neither can it be said that he who gets a wrong done by proxy, is less guilty than if he had done it himself. Hence, whoso suggests or urges the infraction of another’s rights, must be held to have transgressed the law of equal freedom.
Liberty of speech, then, like liberty of action, may be claimed by each, to the fullest extent compatible with the equal rights of all. Exceeding the limits thus arising, it becomes immoral. Within them, no restraint of it is permissible.
A new Areopagitica, were it possible to write one, would surely be needless in our age of the world and in this country. And yet there still prevails, and that too amongst men who plume themselves on their liberality, no small amount of the feeling which Milton combated in his celebrated essay. Not-withstanding the abatement of intolerance, and the growth of free institutions, the repressive policy of the past has occasional advocates even now. Were it put to the vote, probably not a few would say ay to the proposition, that the public safety requires some restriction to be placed on the freedom of speech. The imprisonment of a socialist for blasphemy some few years since, called forth no indignant protest against the violation of—the liberty of unlicensed—speaking, but was even approved by staunch maintainers of religious freedom. Many would like to make it a penal offence to preach discontent to the people; and there are not wanting others who would hang up a few demagogues by way of scarecrows. Let us look at what may be said by the advocates of a mild censorship on behalf of their opinions.
It is an assertion often made, as of indisputable truth, that government ought to guarantee to its subjects—security and a sense of security.—From which maxim to the inference that it is the duty of the magistrate to keep an ear open to the sayings of popular orators, and to stop violent declamation, as being calculated to create alarm, is an obvious step. Were the premises good, the deduction might pass; but the premises are more than questionable. That it is the special function of the legislator to guard every man in the peaceable possession of his person and property, all admit; but that the legislator is called upon to quiet the fears aroused by every trifling excitement, is a notion almost too ridiculous for serious argument. Consider a moment to what it leads. Coupled as are the ideas—security and a sense of security,—we must suppose that as governors are required to carry home—security—to every individual, so also may every individual claim the—sense of security—at their hands. Here is a pretty prospect for overburdened premiers! If such a doctrine be true, where shall the cares of the statesman end? Must he listen to the apprehensions of every hypochondriac, in whose morbid imagination Reform is pictured as a grim ogre of anthropophagous propensities, with pikes for claws and guillotines for teeth? If not, why not?—Sense of security—in such an one has been destroyed by the violent denunciations of some hot patriot; he wishes his trepidations allayed by the suppression of what he thinks dangerous speaking; and, according to the hypothesis, his wishes ought to be obeyed. On the same grounds all agitation should be extinguished, for there are invariably some—and not a small number either—who regard the discussion of every public question that comes uppermost with dread, and predict all kinds of disasters from its continuance. Old women of both sexes working themselves into a state of great tribulation over the terrible vaticinations of a Standard, or the melancholy wailings of a Herald, would fain have put down the Free Trade propaganda; and if their—sense of security—had been duly consulted, they should have had their way. Religious disabilities too ought, for the like reason, to have been still maintained, for the proposal to repeal them was productive of extreme consternation to multitudes of weak-minded people. Prophecies were rife of the return of papal persecutions; every horror narrated in the Book of Martyrs was expected to be acted over afresh; and an epidemic fright invalided its thousands. Credulous individuals listened with raised eyebrows and pendant jaws to the dismal tales of some incipient Titus Oates, and straightway had visions of fire and faggots; each saw himself in Smithfield with a stake at his back and a torch at his feet; or dreamed he was in the torture-chamber of an inquisition, and awoke in a cold perspiration to find that he had mistaken the squeak of a mouse for the creak of a thumb-screw. Well, here was a woful loss of the—sense of security;—and therefore the authorities ought to have stopped the movement for Catholic emancipation, by gagging all its advocates, fettering its press, and preventing its meetings.
It is useless to say that these are exaggerations, and that the alarms of nervous valetudinarians or foolish bigots are to be disregarded. If the fears of a hundred are not to be attended to, why those of a thousand? If not those of a thousand, why those of ten thousand? How shall the line be drawn? where is the requisite standard? who shall tell when the sense of insecurity has become general enough to merit respect? Is it to be when the majority participate in it? If so, who shall decide when they do this? Perhaps it will be said that the apprehensions must be reasonable ones. Good; but who is to determine whether they are so or not? Where is the pope who shall give an infallible judgment on such a matter? To all which questions those who would make the preservation of a—sense of security—the limit to liberty of speech, must first find answers.
Of those animadversions upon state affairs which constitute the legal offence of bringing government into contempt, and of which offence, by the way, all parties might be accused, from a chartist orator, to the leader of the opposition—from the Times, with its burlesques upon the pitiful results of an annual—great talk,—to its facetious contemporary who quizzes the eccentricities of a versatile ex-chancellor—of such animadversions the only needful question to be asked is—are they deserved? Are the allegations contained in them true? If it can be shown that they are not—that is, if it can be shown that the parties referred to have been unjustly aspersed—that is, if it can be shown that a violation of the law has been committed—there is an end of the matter, so far as the moralist is concerned. But, on the other hand, should they prove to be substantially correct, on what grounds shall the suppression of them be defended? That which is really contemptible ought to be exposed to contempt; and, if so, derogatory charges ought to have full publicity. To argue otherwise, is to take up the Machiavellian position, that it is right for the legislature to be an imposture, an—organized hypocrisy——that it is necessary for a nation to be cheated by the semblance of virtue when there is no reality—that public opinion ought to be in error rather than in truth—or that it is well for the people to believe a lie!
There may be much danger in placing an invalid under the regimen proper to people in robust health. For a dyspeptic, chicken-broth may be in all respects better suited than more substantial fare. And whoso is suffering under an attack of influenza, will do wisely to avoid a blustering north-wester, or even a gentle breeze from the south. But he would be thought more than silly who inferred from such facts that solid food and fresh air are bad things. To ascribe any evil results to these, rather than to the unhealthy condition of the patients, would simply extremely crude ideas of causation.
Similarly crude, however, are the ideas of those who infer that unlimited liberty of speech is improper, because productive in certain states of society of disastrous results. It is to the abnormal condition of the body politic that all evils arising from an unrestrained expression of opinion must be attributed, and not to the unrestrained expression itself. Under a sound social regime and its accompanying contentment, nothing is to be feared from the most uncontrolled utterance of thought and feeling. On the other hand it may happen that where disease exists, exposure of the sore places of the state to the cold breath of criticism, will superinduce alarming symptoms. But what then? A Louis Philippe, a General Cavaignac, or a Louis Napoleon, may find excuse in a corrupted and disorganized state of things for espionnage, censorships, and the suppression of public meetings. But what then? If a nation cannot be governed on principles of pure equity, so much the worse for the nation. Those principles remain true notwithstanding. As elsewhere pointed out (p. 37), there must necessarily exist incongruity between the perfect law and the imperfect man. And if evils are entailed upon a people by immediate and entire recognition of the law of equal freedom, in the matter of speech as well as in that of action, such evils are merely significant of the incomplete adaptation of that people to the social state, and not of any defect in the law.