Why free speech is sacred—even when it’s dangerous

The bedrock of freedom? Denying the government the power of censorship.

NADINE STROSSEN: Censorship has always been used by those in power to stifle the voices of those who are criticizing them and seeking to bring about some kind of law reform. So it's not surprising that any authoritarian regime today and throughout history has always stifled protesting voices, has always exercised censorship, including over the arts and culture as well as politics. So, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, to the Soviet Union and Turkey and a whole range of authoritarian countries—Saudi Arabia springs to mind—have all exercised censorship as a way of maintaining the power of those who hold it and of preventing reform and spreading of human rights and also thwarting the pursuit of truth in realms of science and other fields of human endeavor.

I think the flipside to the question of "What is so dangerous about censorship?" is "What is so positive about free speech?" Because we lose the positive potential of free speech through censorship, and freedom of speech is, as great Supreme Court justices in the United States have recognized, the essence of individual liberty. Freedom of thought cannot really be exercised unless you have freedom of speech, so it's a way of forming your ideas, forming your own identity, communicating with other people to forge bonds of friendship, bonds of community. Freedom of speech is used to join together with others to amplify our messages so that we can have more of an impact in bringing about whatever changes or reforms we'd like to see happen in society. Freedom of speech is essential for petitioning the government, lobbying, trying to persuade those we elect and hold accountable to us to adopt certain policies or reject certain policies. Freedom of speech is also essential for the pursuit of truth. As somebody once said: Every great truth began as a blasphemy, so if government had the power to censor, as it has in the past, it has thwarted advances in all kinds of scientific and social scientific fields. Art censorship has been used to stifle expression that has been important, not only for the individual artist herself or himself, but also for those who are deprived, then, of the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired and enlightened by creativity. I definitely agree with the Supreme Court when it said that freedom of speech really is the bedrock of every other right, and really almost everything positive in our society could not be achieved without that essential bedrock.

There is absolutely no doubt that speech can do an infinite amount of harm, as well as an infinite amount of good. The reason why censorship is bad is precisely because speech is so powerful. And with that power we human beings can exert it either to great good or to great ill. Now the question is what does more harm, trusting our fellow citizens on the whole to minimize the adverse impact, adverse potential impact of speech, or trusting government to pick and choose which potentially dangerous, harmful speech should be censored? What we've seen throughout history and around the world, not surprisingly, is whoever exercises censorship power does it in a way to perpetuate their own power and to disproportionately silence the voice of their critics.

So today we have a president who attacks fake news—a lot of my liberal friends, and I am a bleeding-heart liberal as well as a civil libertarian, a lot of my liberal friends will say: But there is such danger coming from right-wing media and the dark corners of the Internet—"Shouldn't we censor that version of fake news?" And I say, "Who exercises the lever of power today? Are we going to give to the Trump administration the power to decide which news is sufficiently 'fake', sufficiently 'dangerous', sufficiently 'harmful' that their FCC licenses should be revoked?" I think it would not be FOX News whose license would be revoked or whose voices would be suppressed, it would be CNN and so forth.

And mark my words I would be equally distraught at having voices on the right silenced for a whole lot of reasons, one of which is the indivisibility of all rights. So if we're licensing the government or empowering the government to say, "This is sufficiently misleading that "it's going to be suppressed," it would just be a matter of time before there's a change in administration, a change in ideology, and it would be voices on the other end of the political spectrum that are suppressed.

And then also for the reason that censorship does more harm than good in general, which is that there is some really important benefit to confront ideas that are out there that people hold. I want to know that they have those ideas; I don't want them to hide in the dark corners of the Internet and to go underground. I want to be able to respond to them, perhaps dissuade people from holding those ideas, certainly persuade other people not to adhere to those ideas. If it's a hateful or discriminatory idea, I want to monitor the people who have those ideas to make sure that they don't actually engage in discriminatory or violent conduct. So there are all kinds of benefits from listening, even I would say especially, to ideas that we consider to be dangerous and odious.

The United States Supreme Court made an observation, which I think is really important, that freedom of speech in terms of government policies, public policies, is especially important because it is not only a matter of individual liberty and self-expression, but it is essential for our system of self-government. The way the Supreme Court put it was more or less this: That freedom of speech about policy issues is the essence of self-government.

The message to the team is keep the eyes on the prize. We have to look beyond the particular factual situation and understand that we are fighting for something larger, which encompasses the ideas that are antithetical to the ones that happened to be at issue in a particular case. So people will often say to me, as somebody who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who barely survived the Buchenwald Concentration Camp: How can I of all people defend the Nazis? And I always say I'm not defending the Nazis, I'm defending freedom of speech as an inviolable, indivisible principal that is only going to remain strong if we continue to respect that bedrock viewpoint neutrality principal denying government the power to suppress an idea merely because in one community that idea is deemed to be unpopular or hateful or hated.

Because I know that in many communities in this country, ideas that I cherish as a civil libertarian, as a human rights champion, those ideas are seen as dangerous and are subject to censorship. So I'm not defending the Nazis, I'm defending a principle that is especially important for those of us who want to have the freedom to raise our voices to protest the Nazis and everything they stand for.

  • Suppression of free speech dooms democracy, says law professor Nadine Strossen. We should all be open to hearing dangerous and odious ideas rather than drive them underground.
  • "[P]eople will often say to me, as somebody who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor who barely survived the Buchenwald Concentration Camp: How can I of all people defend the Nazis?" says Strossen. She also says, "And mark my words I would be equally distraught at having voices on the right silenced for a whole lot of reasons, one of which is the indivisibility of all rights."
  • The Charles Koch Foundation is committed to understanding what drives intolerance and the best ways to cure it. The foundation supports interdisciplinary research to overcome intolerance, new models for peaceful interactions, and experiments that can heal fractured communities. For more information, visit charleskochfoundation.org/courageous-collaborations.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.