Quote of the Week: Evelyn Hall on Free Speech

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it

This quotation is often misattributed to Voltaire, but actually comes from British Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who summed up Voltaire’s attiude to free speech in these famous words.

This quotation goes to the heart of what free speech is: the right to express unpopular and controversial opinions. Ideas that everyone agrees with do not need this protection; they can be expressed under any system. This is why people who say they’re in favour of free speech, but support legislation against hate speech, are confused or dishonest. Everyone supports free speech for opinions they agree with. The true and only test of whether you’re a supporter of free speech is whether you support free speech for ideas you consider mistaken, offensive, or dangerous.

The only part I disagree with is “to the death”. I don’t intend to sacrifice my own life for any cause. Free speech is very important, but it is not more important than life. You also have to pick your battles. You have limited resources at your disposal and if you use them all to support the free speech rights of your most hated adversary, you won’t be able to adequately defend your own rights.

As a proponent of free speech, it is legitimate to be selective about which causes you put your weight behind and which you support only passively. What I mean by passive support is that you do nothing to undermine the right to express the disagreeable view in question, and when the topic comes up or you are asked about it, you voice your support for keeping or making the expression of that view legal. In this vein, I passively support the right of Holocaust deniers, socialists, Islamists, racists, feminists, radical environmentalists, and various other miscreants to spread their – in my view – wrongheaded and dangerous ideas, but I’m certainly not defending them to the death.

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