Free speech is usually considered a constitutional right, which is certainly correct. It’s also often discussed as a human right—also correct. But the benefits of free speech go further. Free speech acts as a gateway toward human improvement and the betterment of society.
How, you ask? It’s simple: innovation.
Innovation Through Collaboration
Most great discoveries and achievements come not through one person’s sole genius, but through collaboration with others. Take, for example, the one and only Albert Einstein. His special theory of relativity was based not on his own solitary contemplations but on discussions with two other innovators, Marcel Grossmann and Michele Besso. Grossmann’s work in mathematics is said to have greatly helped Einstein. Who knows what would have happened had the latter worked alone?
Discussion leads to innovation.
When we are able to discuss and collaborate with one another, we are putting together our own individual gifts and talents (a principle known in economics as specialization) toward a broader purpose—in this case, discovering, inventing, or creating something. And, just as with Einstein, when we are free to collaborate, society is improved.
“The creativity of the market economy–the increasing returns so important in modern growth theory–in large part arises from what happens when people with information get together and talk,” economists Curtis Simon and Clark Nardinelli wrote after studying 19th- and 20th-century growth in English cities. “The talk is necessary to turn information into productive knowledge.”
Censoring ‘Harmful Speech’
At this point, the reader might protest. Of course, certain discussion can lead to innovation and discovery, but we wouldn’t ban that kind of speech; we would only ban harmful speech.
Aside from the subjectivity of what “harmful” or “hateful” or “[insert derogatory word here] speech” actually means, there is another problem, best illustrated by another example.
Galileo Galilei, sometimes called “the father of modern physics,” was a proponent of heliocentrism—the theory that the earth revolves around the sun. The religious leaders of the day disagreed with this theory. They thought it was unscriptural, and therefore “harmful speech.”
In 1616, the Inquisition of the Catholic Church brought charges against Galileo. They essentially forced him to publicly recant this belief, although he still held it privately. Science, and by extension progress, was held back because it didn’t meet the speech standards of the day.
This can further be seen today in one of the worst regimes in the modern day: The Chinese regime.
The Chinese Communist Party’s censorship, known as the “Great Firewall,” prevents users from accessing certain content the government sees as “harming national interests, harming ethnic unity, subverting state authority” and so on. In other words, it censors anything the government doesn’t like. This includes the Chinese government blocking the search of a word that could be related to something bad for the government. (For example, one too many searches for the word “river,” which is pronounced like the name of a former Chinese president).
According to one analysis, “this inefficiency costs China dearly, especially in the area of indigenous innovation. China's lack of innovation derives partially from entrepreneurs not knowing enough about the latest trends, something attributable to the closed nature of the country's Internet. Slow traffic—even with tools to hop over the Great Firewall—also hinders creativity.”
The inability of Chinese users, many of whom are entrepreneurs seeking to start businesses, to freely view content has blocked innovation in the world’s most populous country. Unfortunately, this is anything but unique, as countries all over Southeast Asia have similar (if often less extreme) restrictions. Singapore, for example, requires news websites that receive more than 50,000 views a month to obtain a license, in addition to paying $50,000.
And now the United States is starting to do the same, as Big Tech platforms are beginning to censor content they don’t agree with or don’t want people to see. And, as we now know from the lips of Twitter’s CEO himself, this is not going to end soon: those who disagree with the status quo must be stopped. Even worse, while the US government is not forcing this, it is most certainly pushing for it, as some government officials in the Democratic party (including even moderates like Senator Joe Manchin) have explicitly approved this and similar censorship.
This kind of censorship can only serve to stifle discussion and growth. And, as seen throughout history and even throughout the modern world, censorship of free speech harms innovation and holds society back.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing a dissent in the case Abrams v. United States, put it well:
But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.
Right now, we need to realize that free speech is important not only as an individual liberty, but as a fundamental factor driving the growth and betterment of society.