Questioning Free Speech

Jeremy Waldron reviews John Durham Peters’n Courting the Abyss and considers free speech, in the LRB:

[M]any members repeated the saying often attributed to Voltaire: ‘I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ Actually, as John Durham Peters points out in Courting the Abyss, there is no evidence that Voltaire ever said any such thing. An English writer, Beatrice Hall, writing under a male pseudonym in 1906, suggested that Voltaire’s attitude to the burning of a book written by Helvétius might be summed up: ‘How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” was his attitude now.’ It was her readers – and countless civil libertarians afterwards – who made the mistake of attributing the saying to Voltaire himself.

Whoever said it, Peters has written an interesting and provocative book, exploring what might lie behind that smug liberal proclamation. To begin with, the language attributed to Voltaire is bewildering. ‘Defend to the death your right to say it?’ Whose death? How would death be involved? I guess its most attractive meaning is something like: ‘I will fight and, if need be, lay down my life for a Bill of Rights that may have this implication.’ A more troubling reading, however, is that Nazi speech is worth protecting even if a consequence of that protection is that someone gets hurt or killed. ‘I will defend your right to say it, even if your saying it makes violence more likely against the people attacked in your pamphlets.’ Is that what is meant? Defenders of free speech squirm on this point. On the one hand, they want to say that we should be willing to brave death for the sake of this important individual right. On the other hand, they assure us dogmatically that there is no clear evidence of any causal connection between, say, racist posters and incidents of racial violence, between pamphlets that say ‘Hitler should have finished the job’ and anti-semitic attacks, or between pornography and violence against women. Indeed, they pretend to have no idea of what such a causal mechanism could possibly be: ‘We are defending only the Nazis’ speech. How on earth could there be any connection between what they say and the things that some violent individuals do?’

It’s a strange dichotomy because, in other contexts, American civil liberties scholars have no difficulty at all in seeing a connection between speech and the possibility of violence.