Freedom of speech does not only involve the rights of the person speaking, but the right of a person to listen and to hear as well.
It is not often known that in the very early days of the American revolution, before the colonists declared their independence from the British empire, their self-declared aim was to defend their “traditional rights as Englishmen” from the tyranny of King George III.
It may seem rather strange for Americans to understand this today, but the tradition of American liberty is very much influenced by the tradition of English liberty. Magna Carta, the English revolution of the 1640s and the 1689 Bill of Rights, are in many ways ancestors of the American revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the American Bill of Rights. What makes the American revolution historic was that it went beyond traditional notions of liberties applying to ‘freeborn Englishmen’ into more universal notions of the ‘Rights of Man’, an antecedent of what we now call human rights.
One of the key contributions that this great tradition of English liberty has made to civilisation was early moral and philosophical defences of the liberty that we know as ‘free speech,’ a concept that still holds a sacrosanct position in the minds of many across the world — many of whom are still fighting for the right to express themselves free from persecution.
One of the most influential and articulate thinkers on English liberty was the 17th century poet John Milton. Milton offers us a lesson on free speech and why we should think twice before censoring speech that we might find disagreeable. In 1644, in the midst of a bloody civil war that tore the country apart, 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 would debate the ideas of the day and free expression was respected. Milton’s work on this subject is worth a read, but for the purposes of this piece I would like to explore just a particular idea that is presented in Areopagitica that is not commented upon enough.
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 also suggests that freedom of speech does not only involve the rights of the person speaking, but the right of a person to listen and 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. As Frederick Douglass once said in a 1860 speech after a racist mob broke up an abolitionist meeting because they found it offensive:
Equally clear is the right to hear. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker. It is just as criminal to rob a man of his right to speak and hear as it would be to rob him of his money. … When a man is allowed to speak because he is rich and powerful, it aggravates the crime of denying the right to the poor and humble.
Take, for instance, this Al-Jazeera article on the increasing repression against dissidents in Vietnam. It mentions the a case of a singer, Pham Doan Trang, whose concert was raided by the authorities where she and 50 others were arrested because she was singing “unpermitted songs”. In Vietnam, there is a law that stipulates that every songwriter must register to perform and disseminate a song. Trang was later taken into police custody where she was beaten and had her phone, passport and laptop confiscated.
This act of blatant state censorship was not just an offence against Trang and her right to play her music, which it obviously was, but it was an offence against the audience of that concert as they were denied the right to listen and watch the performance they wanted to see.
Trang is a notorious dissident and pro-democracy activist in Vietnam who has been persecuted multiple times by the Vietnamese Stalinist state for her views. She was previously arrested earlier this year for publishing a book that was subsequently banned called Chính trị bình dân (Politics for the Masses), a rather basic textbook on political science that sets out to outline concepts such as democracy, rule of law and separation of powers to a mass audience. The banning of this book again illustrates the point that the act of censorship did not just violate Trang’s right to write and publish a book, but it violated the right of people to read that book. The book did become a best seller and is shared widely on social media, despite the efforts of the regime to censor it.
The poverty of much of the discussions around free speech is that it focuses too little on the violation of censorship and repression in all their forms, the violation of a potential audience’s right to hear and listen to whatever form of expression they choose. Free speech is both an individual right and a public good. Those of us who are champions of free expression need to understand that the right to hear is as much involved as the right to speak in any case of free expression, as it is the foundation of a robust public sphere that helps make democracy possible.
No wonder the reactionary Communist party of Vietnam is hell bent on preventing the Vietnamese masses from reading books and blogs it doesn’t want them to read, especially the ones that talk about democracy and the idea that masses can participate in politics. It demonstrates the paternalistic view of the party towards the Vietnamese people, whom it views as property, as children who need be guarded from ‘dangerous ideas’. It doesn’t see them as autonomous individuals who can receive a diverse range of ideas and make their own judgements about them. Such a mindset doesn’t only afflict Vietnam, but the entire world, and it is more crucial than ever to resist it. I leave you now with a short poem by Rabindranath Tagore that hopefully captures the spirit of this piece:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee:Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.