Heretics are the heroes of the fight for free speech

Mick Hume’s new book, Trigger Warning, recounts an heretical history.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

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Free speech in the West is threatened today less by jackbooted censorship than by the conformist culture of You Can’t Say That. Those who break strict speech codes and step outside the narrow bounds of acceptable opinion – such as Tim Hunt, the Nobel Prize-winning biochemist hounded out of his profession for making a daft joke about women in science – can expect not just criticism, but demands that they be silenced. ‘Offensive’ ideas are effectively treated as a secular form of blasphemy, and those who express them as heretics to be gagged and punished rather than debated with.

Yet, as my new book, Trigger Warning, argues, those branded heretics have often been the heroes, whipping boys and cause célèbres in the historic struggle for free speech. The big battles have been about the freedom to dissent from the respectable opinion of the age and question the unquestionable; we might call it the right to be offensive. What changes is what society considers heresy at different stages in history.

Heresy is defined as a belief contrary to orthodox religious opinion; or, in non-religious terms, an opinion profoundly at odds with what is generally accepted. The Ancient Greek origins of the word heresy are revealing. An early Christian leader defined his own views as ‘orthodox’, from the Greek for ‘right belief’. The views of his opponents he branded as heresy – from the Greek for ‘choice of belief’.

The thing that has always got you branded a heretic is making an intellectual choice. Heresy is the desire to choose what you believe in and to dissent from the authoritative dogma of the day. What better case for freedom of speech could there be?

Socrates, the greatest philosopher of Ancient Greece, raised the question of the right to be a heretic. Free speech – or parrhesia as they called it – meant something different to the Ancient Greeks. Athenian democracy was based on the idea of all free male citizens being of equal standing. Free speech represented this equality of merit. It was not supposed to be about freedom from overbearing state power, which is what those who fought for it later in Britain and America wanted.

Yet even in the ‘pure’ democracy of Athens, Socrates was put on trial and put to death at the age of 70 for taking free speech ‘too far’. Socrates questioned everything, often to the discomfort of his fellow citizens, and refused to be bound by Athens’ sacred traditions. He was charged with ‘not believing in the gods that the city believes in’ – heresy. Nor did Socrates believe in restraining his speech in line with the Athenian tradition of Aidos – respect, modesty or shame. He was, literally, shameless, even stripping naked to speak before his accusers to symbolise that everything must be out in the open. And the naked philosopher made clear that if the court voted to spare him, he would continue asking forbidden questions.

The trial and execution of Socrates shows that, even in a society of equals with a commitment to open discussion, many who think they believe absolutely in that principle will recoil when confronted with heretical free speech bare-arsed and red in tooth and claw. So, as one expert study has it, ‘[w]hen Socrates practises parrhesia as the Athenians understood it, the bold affirmation and shameless articulation of what one believes to be true, the Athenians vote to execute him’. How much more horrifying real free speech must seem to the many who claim to support it in our timid society.

Like much else discovered or invented by ancient civilisations from science to sewers, the concept of free speech disappeared in Europe’s Dark Ages before being reinvented once more in the modern world.

Before the modern age in a society such as Britain, the very idea of free speech was considered heretical. In medieval England, matters of state were legitimately to be discussed only by the king and his courtiers, quite possibly in Norman French, and matters of faith were officially to be read and spoken of only by the priesthood, in Latin. Anything else could be deemed treason or heresy, potentially punishable by death.

This week marks the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta in 1215. For establishing the idea that there were limits to the power of the Crown, Magna Carta should rightly be celebrated as creating a prototype for liberty. Yet the historic Magna Carta makes no mention of freedom of speech. That was hardly surprising. Such a concept would have been effectively meaningless for the mass of peasants in the feudal England of 1215, among the most advanced nations of its medieval age.

Free speech, understood as the ability openly to express an opinion, take part in public debate and criticise those in authority, could not take hold in England or Europe until humanity moved history on, the notion of individual rights gained currency and people began to question the absolute power of Crown and Church.

Free speech became the voice of the autonomous individual who only emerged in British and Western society in the age of the Enlightenment. Those in authority did all they could to preserve their public monopoly on the Truth. The first printing press was introduced to England by William Caxton in 1476. English monarchs imposed a system of Crown licensing under which nothing could legally be published except with the permission of the Star Chamber. Any criticism of the Crown or the Church could be branded treason, seditious libel or blasphemy.

In 1637, a Puritan author, William Prynne, had his ears cut off for writing heretical pamphlets attacking the religious policies of King Charles I’s regime; Prynne was also branded on both cheeks with ‘S L’ for seditious libeller. Even in 1663, John Twyn was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in London – now Marble Arch – under the recently restored King Charles II, having been found guilty of high treason for printing – not writing – a ‘seditious, poisonous and scandalous book’ justifying the people’s right to rebel against injustice.

Intolerance remained a core value of Western culture until the dawn of modernity. As late as 1691, French Catholic theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet could boast: ‘I have the right to persecute you because I am right and you are wrong.’ No nonsense about everybody being ‘entitled to their opinion’ there. Heretical notions of free speech were not to be tolerated.

Yet it was also in the seventeenth-century age of Enlightenment that the growing belief in the freedom of the individual made free speech both necessary and desirable. It burst out as a burning political issue in the struggles between king, Church and parliament in the run-up to the English Revolution. That fire was to burn across the Atlantic.

Over the past 400 years, religious, political, cultural and sexual heretics have fought for the right to offend against the orthodoxy of the age. In the first wave of the modern free-speech wars in England, those demanding free speech were religious heretics who wished to break from the Church of Rome. The Puritans wanted a Bible printed in their own English language. The punishment for such heresy was for not only the book, but also the printer, to be burned at the stake. William Tyndale printed an English version of the New Testament in Germany in 1526 and smuggled it into England. He was strangled and burned for heresy in 1536. Just three years after he was executed, Henry VIII – having split from Rome and founded the Church of England – gave approval for an English text, the Great Bible, based on Tyndale’s work. Yesterday’s blasphemous heresy had become today’s orthodox belief.

The role of religious heretics in demanding free speech is worth remembering, when religion is often seen purely as a force for repression. Since these religious heretics came up against the censorious power of the central authority, their demands soon melded into a rising political clamour for the freedom of the press.

As the English Civil War broke out between king and parliament, John Milton published his plea for unlicensed printing in 1644, the Areopagitica, asking parliament to ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties’. Milton was equally adamant that those who published blasphemy should be punished after the event. Nor did he wish the liberty to ‘utter and argue freely’ to be extended to devilish papists or non-believers. Tolerance has always been a difficult principle to uphold in practice.

The turmoil of the English Revolution, when the king was overthrown and executed in 1649 and the ‘order of the world’ turned on its head, brought new voices from below into public life for the first time. The radical Levellers movement formulated its own demands for more far-reaching changes in society, not least in relation to freedom of speech and of the press. Leveller John Lilburne called for an end to state licensing of the press: ‘For what may not be done to that people who may not speak or write, but at the pleasure of licensers?’

The English monarchy was restored in 1660, along with a new system of Crown licensing of the printing press. But when the Glorious Revolution replaced the autocratic Catholic King James II with the Protestant William of Orange in 1689, parliament passed a Bill of Rights. This wrote freedom of speech and debate into English law, at least for members of parliament. By 1695, the system of Crown licensing of the press finally ended. The fight for freedom of speech, however, was just beginning.

It was in that same era of England’s Glorious Revolution that John Locke’s heretical A Letter Concerning Toleration appeared (actually a private letter to a friend, who promptly published it). The letter established the case for freedom of conscience – the precursor of public freedom of speech. Locke’s message was a direct challenge to the intolerance of the old order, which had deployed inquisitions and blasphemy laws to try to force heretics to change their minds and submit to the religious orthodoxy. That, argued Locke, was both wrong in principle and useless in practice. Instead, he insisted, ‘the care of each man’s salvation belongs only to himself’, since ‘faith is not faith without believing’. Governments should stick to ‘civil interests’, protecting people’s ‘life, liberty, health… and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like’. But the state had no business interfering in matters of conscience or faith: ‘The business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man’s goods and person.’ More than three centuries later, that is a message we might think our rulers would do well to take onboard today, when governments seem to think that testing ‘the truth of opinions’ and failing those they disapprove of is very much the business of laws.

In the 1760s, the English free-speech wars were carried forward by one of my favourite heretical heroes, John Wilkes – maverick journalist, printer, member of parliament and Lord Mayor of London, and a pioneer of the fight for liberty and democracy. At a time when any criticism of the Crown and its ministers could still get you locked up for seditious libel, Wilkes published a scandal-mongering newspaper, The North Briton, that ridiculed the royal court and its pet politicians – often suggesting, for example, that the king’s mother was intimate with the prime minister – and declared on its front page that ‘the liberty of the press’ was ‘the birthright of every Briton’.

For publishing what the authorities deemed heresy, Wilkes was convicted of both seditious libel and blasphemous libel, sent to the Tower of London, imprisoned for almost two years, declared an outlaw, expelled from parliament and then barred from returning despite winning four elections. In the course of these personal struggles, Wilkes effectively ended the British state’s use of arbitrary ‘general warrants’ to arrest political opponents, established the right of English electors to choose their MP, and won the vital freedom of newspapers to report what the country’s rulers said and did behind the doors of parliament.

Wilkes, the Georgian gentleman heretic, was an early example of a people’s champion. The cry of ‘Wilkes and liberty!’ resounded through the streets of London, often accompanied by the sounds of that pre-democratic expression of the people’s will, the riot. When the fight for the right to report what was said in parliament reached its climax in 1771, and Wilkes’s allies arrived at Westminster to be sent to the Tower, a reported 50,000 Londoners laid siege to parliament in their defence and came close to lynching the prime minister, Lord North, leaving him, as the Middlesex Journal reported, ‘exceedingly terrified’.

The Wilkes riots left the English ruling class exceedingly terrified of a populace now demanding liberty and the freedom of the press. Yet the figure at the centre of this crisis was hardly a righteous crusader for human rights. John Wilkes was no Angelina Jolie. He was a notorious rake, a scoundrel, a womanising drunkard, gambler and debtor. His publications, which became causes célèbres in the fight for press freedom, mixed scurrilous scandal with downright filth. At the same time as Wilkes was convicted of seditious libel by the House of Commons for criticising the king, he was also found guilty of obscene libel by the House of Lords for publishing pornographic poetry.

Yet Wilkes the heretic and his ignoble publications helped to change the course of political history and struck a major blow for press freedom. To my mind, John Wilkes the scoundrel and publisher of porn was far more of a moral force for good than any high-handed attempt to limit people’s freedom of speech ‘for their own good’. His story is a reminder that, in the real world, freedom is less an abstract principle than a messy and sometimes bloody business, and that high-minded notions of liberty can be deployed for base aims, too. That does not alter the need to defend the principle of free speech, regardless of what we might think of its specific content, and the rights of the heretical heroes who fight for it, even if, like Wilkes, they have feet caked in clay.

The ideas of liberty pioneered by English radicals and revolutionaries such as Milton, Wilkes and Tom Paine helped to inspire the revolutions that swept first America and then France at the end of the eighteenth century. By the 1770s, political heretics who rejected the divine right of the English Crown to rule its colonies became the leaders of the American Revolution. The second US president, John Adams, later reflected that the war for American independence, which started in 1775, was not the real revolution. That, said Adams, had been the earlier revolution in the hearts and minds of the people, the spark for which had been the pamphlets and newspapers ‘by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed’. Freedom of expression had proved the catalyst for a nation to break free.

Little wonder, then, that after independence was won the First Amendment enshrined that freedom in the new US Constitution in 1791, establishing that: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’

But history suggests that the fight for free speech is never over – even in America. A few years after the First Amendment was passed, it was effectively bypassed by laws that sought to criminalise criticism of the US government.

The commitment of the Founding Fathers to freedom of speech was not necessarily as deep or as wide as might be assumed. Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers took their lead from the restricted form of free speech written into English law; they had, says one critical historian, ‘an unbridled passion for a bridled liberty of speech’. The question of how tight that bridle should fit was soon tested, with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Sedition Act made it a serious offence, punishable by fines, prison and even deportation, to utter or write words which might ‘defame’ the US president, government or Congress, bring them into ‘contempt or disrepute’, or ‘excite against them… the hatred of the good people of the United States’. In short, it potentially became a crime to criticise the American government. The oppressive old English laws of seditious libel had effectively been transported to the new America, the First Amendment notwithstanding.

It was when faced with the threat of being branded seditious – that is, being cast in the role of heretics – that the opposition became First Amendment fundamentalists. James Madison now argued that the American system of government was different from the British, resting as it did on the sovereignty of the people rather than of parliament. Therefore ‘a different degree of freedom in the use of the press’ was required. That freedom must be extended beyond ‘an exemption from previous restraint, to an exemption from subsequent penalties also’. Americans must have the right not only to speak and publish freely, but to be free from the threat of being punished by the government afterwards. The Sedition Act lapsed, Madison was elected fourth president of the United States in 1809, and free speech took another unsteady step forward. Even in the heart of the land of the free, public freedom of speech has never been a right that can safely be taken for granted for long.

Back in Britain in the early nineteenth century, freedom of speech and of the press became central issues for the Chartists and others campaigning for a democratic system of government and the extension of the vote. Even after state licensing of the press had ended, governments imposed a stamp tax on heretical newspapers to try to price them out of the reach of working people. These penalties increased after the infamous 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, when cavalry troops charged a mass rally for parliamentary reform (the booming industrial city still had no MPs to represent it), leaving an estimated 15 dead and up to 500 injured.

The government of Lord Castlereagh increased the maximum penalty for writing or publishing ‘blasphemous and seditious libels’ against the religious and political authorities to 14 years’ transportation – banishment from Britain to a penal colony. Another law extended the stamp tax to publications carrying political opinions. This became known contemptuously as the ‘tax on knowledge’. Many radicals refused to pay it and went to jail for editing, writing or simply selling heretical newspapers. These heretics played a key role in forcing greater democracy on the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

The nineteenth-century case for free speech took another leap forward with the publication of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty in 1859. Mill made an uncompromising case for individual freedom of speech as a social good, and the importance of allowing the heretical voice to test the accepted truths and values of society:

‘If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind… If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’

Mill’s message was far from universally accepted, however. In that same year of 1859, Charles Darwin finally published his masterwork outlining the theory of evolution, On the Origin of Species. The blasphemous book was soon banned from the library of Trinity College, Cambridge – the university where Darwin had been a student.

By the twentieth century, one might imagine that the idea of heretic-hunting and damning blasphemers was past its use-by date in the democratic West. Yet there were new challenges to face and battles to be fought for free speech – and not just against Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Soviet Union. In the American century, the US became a key battleground in the free-speech wars. Time and again, it was those seeking to change society who found themselves cast in the role of heretic and witch-hunted for their views.

For example, before the First World War the revolutionary syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World – better known as the IWW, or Wobblies – fought (both politically and physically) to organise impoverished and unemployed American workers in a militant trade union. Some of the Wobblies’ fiercest battles became known as the ‘Free Speech Fights’. Whenever the local authorities threw IWW organisers in jail simply for making public recruitment speeches, large numbers of Wobblies would descend on the town to demand their release and the right to free speech. The Wobblies’ Free Speech Fights were in the best American tradition of demanding that paper rights be made real. As the radical critic Courtenay Lemon wrote, these political heretics had ‘kept alight the fires of freedom, like some outcast vestal of human liberty. That the defence of traditional rights to which this government is supposed to be dedicated should devolve upon an organisation so often denounced as “unpatriotic” and “un-American” is but the usual, the unfailing irony of history.’

Between the two world wars the US Supreme Court became the scene of several major cases – remarkably, the first ones it heard concerning the First Amendment – that set new benchmarks in the legal battle over free speech. Some cases were won, some lost, notably during the ‘red scare’ crackdown on political radicals after the First World War. But they helped eventually to broaden the legal definition of free speech under the First Amendment. And none of those court cases was a narrow legal affair. Most were about political heretics engaged in struggles in wider American society, be they anti-war agitators, religious pacifists, anarchists, socialists, anti-Semites or communists.

In the Cold War decades after the Second World War, an icy front of anti-communist laws sought to freeze free speech in America, with the complicity of the Supreme Court. Then, in the liberalising atmosphere of the 1960s, two challenges from heretical views at either end of the political spectrum broke further new ground for free speech in America.

In the 1964 case of New York Times v Sullivan, the Supreme Court found for the newspaper against LB Sullivan, the public-safety commissioner in Montgomery, who claimed that he had been libelled in an advertisement placed by the black civil-rights movement. Sullivan had been awarded half a million dollars by state courts. The US Supreme Court judges ruled, however, that the First Amendment meant it should not be an offence to criticise or defame public officials, even if the criticism contained honest mistakes, unless publication was motivated by malice. As the ruling put it, ‘debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open’, which ‘may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials’.

Recognising that the advert did get some facts wrong, the justices nonetheless declared that ‘erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and… it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the “breathing space” that they need to survive’. This 1964 decision finally removed the ancient threat of being prosecuted for ‘seditious libel’ from over the heads of US heretics who criticised the authorities.

Five years later in 1969, a political heretic from the other end of the spectrum helped push back the barriers further still. In Brandenburg v Ohio the Supreme Court reversed the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader who had denounced Jews and black people at a rally. The judges ruled that simply holding or expressing hateful or inflammatory views would no longer be sufficient to break the law. Instead, under the First Amendment, a speaker would be protected except if his words were intended towards ‘inciting or producing imminent lawless action’ and also ‘likely to produce such action’. Establishing the right of the KKK to spout its bile may not seem like a particularly famous victory for freedom today, but in drawing a firm line between hateful words and deeds, and affirming that the holding of views that many found repugnant could not in itself be considered a crime, it laid a firmer foundation for free speech in America as an indivisible and universal right.

Today the biggest threat often comes not from official bans and censorship imposed in the name of central authority and intolerance, but an unofficial censorship and an atmosphere of conformism justified in the language of protecting rights and diversity. As a consequence, we can find ourselves defending the rights of some unattractive and unsavoury characters. But the lesson of history is that fighting for free speech means standing up for the freedom of heretics and their right to be offensive.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, is published by Harper Collins. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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