Free Speech and Democracy

The Athenian Statesman Pericles in the Agora

The Athenian Statesman Pericles gives his Funeral Oration for the dead of the Peloponnesian War in the Agora

The exchange and development of ideas among citizens has been at the heart of vigorous civil life from the time of the first classical experiments in democracy. The agora of ancient Athens and the Roman forum were market places not just for goods but also for the public debate which provided the focus for civil society then and have influenced western culture ever since.

Athenian democracy and the centrality of free expression, debate and deliberative decision-making is perhaps best summarised in Pericles’ Funeral Oration, given in 430 to honour the dead of the first battles of the Peloponnesian War, and recorded by Thucydides in Book II of his History of the Peloponnesian War:

“Our government is called a democracy because power resides not in a few people but in the majority of our citizens. But every person has equal rights before the law; prestige and respect are paid those who win them by their merits, regardless of their political, economic or social status and no-one is deprived of making his contribution to the city’s welfare.

“We are equally fair-minded in tolerating differences in people’s private concerns; we do not get irritated with our neighbours when they do what they like or show those signs of disapproval which do no great harm but are certainly unpleasant.

The Roman Forum

The Roman Forum

“In our public dealings we have respect for our officials and the laws, especially those laws which protect the helpless and those unwritten laws whose violation is generally regarded as shameful…

“We love beauty without extravagance and wisdom without weakness of will. Wealth we regard not as a means for private display but rather for public service; and poverty we consider no disgrace although we think it a disgrace not to try to overcome it.

“We believe a man should be concerned about public as well as private affairs for we regard the person who takes no part in politics not as merely uninterested but as useless. We reach decisions on public policy only after full discussion, believing that sound judgement, far from being impeded by discussion, is arrived at only when full information is considered before a decision is made.” 

s Common SenseFrom the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, long before the introduction of either the universal franchise or electronic communications, those who could read devoured and debated the thousands of political, philosophical, scientific and religious tracts which rolled off the presses each year. In late eighteenth century France, as the ancien régime neared its end, 10,000 pamphlets a year were being printed for or against the monarchy or the revolution.

Estimates of the 1776 print run of Common Sense, Tom Paine’s argument for American independence from the British crown, vary from 150,000 to 600,000. Even the lower figure is astonishing given prevailing literacy rates.

Both traditions acknowledged not just the potency of ideas but also the role of citizens in making them a decisive influence on public policy.

Now freedom of expression is enshrined in the declarations of the world’s great assemblies. It is the right of those who live in democratic societies and the aspiration of those who do not.

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