The Reciprocal Virtue of Free Speech

Given the ghastly massacre in Paris recently, many issues may be raised concerning politically protected satire (whatever its quality) when the cartoon pen is shown to be less mighty to terror attacks. One issue consists of the reasons to justify extending the law to protect speech and satire—even satire that would offend and enrage to such an extent that men with guns would kill seventeen innocent people.

I find one film scene to be particularly relevant here. It is from the 1966 film adaptation of Sir Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons. In it, the threatened St. Thomas More allows a traitorous servant to escape his presence. His family protests. They tell More to arrest this character because he is “dangerous,” “a scoundrel” and “a spy.” More replies that since this servant has broken no law, he should be allowed to leave in peace: “And go he should if he were the devil himself until he broke the law.” More then has this exchange with his astonished son-in-law, William Roper:

Roper: “So, now you’d give [the] devil the benefit of the law?”

More: “Yes. What would you do? Cut a great a great road through the law to get after the devil?”

Roper: “Yes! I’d cut down every law in England to do that.”

More: “Oh? And when the last law was down and the devil turned round on you, where would you hide Roper? The law has all been flat. This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast. Man’s laws, not God’s. And if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.”

The lesson here is twofold: when the law protects my enemies, it protects me as well. The double virtue of the rule of law consists in providing the liberties to my opponents (ideological, economic, and personal) that I would want for myself if the devil were hunting me. There is just as much as a chance that when I am hunting the devil, the devil is hunting me. But if I weaken it—if I cut a road through a law such as our freedom of speech—my own liberties make be taken away if opponents get the chance. But this practical excellence of liberties, such as speech, assembly, religious exercise, and the press, exist not just in laws but in the values that underlies them.

The value consists the principle of reciprocity as well as gaining wisdom. It cannot be repeated enough that when John stops Jane from saying what is on her mind, it is not just Jane’s right to speak the truth as she sees it that is violated. It is also John’s right to listen to someone else that is prevented from maturating. Free speech could also be called free listening. I do not have to speak to you, nor do I have to listen to you. But when either of us exercises conversation, and in especially grave matters like religion and politics, we can only be the most honest if we are willing to speak frankly. Then—and only then—can it be mostly expected for there to be a transference of knowledge and experience. Obviously there can be abuse—a Catholic may think a Protestant abuses religious exercise, a Protestant may think of a Catholic likewise, and an atheist likewise of both. Yet by extending the benefits of the law to each other, it becomes not the rule of whoever are the men in power, but the rule of laws applying to all people throughout the country. Currently, hate speech laws exist throughout much English-speaking countries and on the European continent. What to make of a road that cuts through free expression reciprocal in enforcement?

Interestingly enough, Thomas More was the first person in British Parliament to propose freedom of speech for parliament members when they spoke on the floor. His reason was that given everyone has limited experience, no one has complete knowledge of any political issue. So it is prudent and right for each man to share what he thinks he knows without fear of legal reprisal, so that people may grow wiser. More also approved the burning of several Protestant heretics at the stake for printing Bibles in the vernacular English. It goes to show that no person is perfect deciding what should and should not be said, especially when the political power is given to them to enforce the folly of their wisdom. J.S. Mill writes: “the Roman Catholic Church, even at the canonization of a saint, admits, and listens patiently to, a “devil’s advocate.” The holiest of men, it appears, cannot be admitted to posthumous honours, until all that the devil could say against him is known and weighed.” Devilish satire must be given the benefit of the law and recognition of their right, for everyone’s safety sake.

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