Speaking of Free Speech

A commitment to freedom of speech – albeit by no means always regarded as a universal right –  has been a central feature of all progressive societies from classical times onwards. The Athenians not only attached huge significance to the art of rhetoric and those who mastered it but also, as embodied in the teachings of Socrates in particular,  to the power of argument as a means of reaching right and just judgement. The Roman Republic prized, at least for its citizens, freedom of speech and religion and early Islam embraced both rights, preferring persuasion to force as a means of conversion and founding some the world’s oldest universities on the principles.

Freedom of speech, at least for some, was a key feature of Britain’s Bill of Rights of 1689 and, more universally a century later, of the tenets of the French Revolution and the American Constition.

And throughout history, artists and philosophers, politicians and poets, reformers and revolutionaries have striven for and spoken and written about freedom of speech both as an individual necessity and a human right.

Here are a selection of sometimes inspirational quotations on the topic of free speech. If you have a favourite which is not featured, please do let us know by emailing us.

You can also import these quotations so that they appear in random order on your blog or website. To find out how, go to our Quotes for Your Website page. 

 ”Wherever the relevance of speech is at stake, matters become political by definition, for speech is what makes man a political being.”

Hannah Arendt, 1906-1975, German political philosopher


“Free speech is to a great people what winds are to oceans and malarial regions, which waft away the elements of disease and bring new elements of health; and where free speech is stopped, miasma is bred, and death comes fast.”

Henry Ward Beecher, 1813-1887, American preacher


“A people which is able to say everything becomes able to do everything.”

Napoleon Bonaparte, 1769-1821, French Emperor


“Without free speech no search for truth is possible… no discovery of truth is useful… Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race.”

Charles Bradlaugh, 1833-1891, British social reformer


“If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”

Noam Chomsky, 1928 – , American linguist and political activist


“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason… Equally clear is the right to hear. To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

Frederick Douglass, 1817-1895, American author and abolitionist


“Speech is power: speech is to persuade, to convert, to compel. It is to bring another out of his bad sense into your good sense.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1832, American writer


“We are willing enough to praise freedom when she is safely tucked away in the past and cannot be a nuisance. In the present, amidst dangers whose outcome we cannot foresee, we get nervous about her, and admit censorship.”

EM Forster, 1879-1970, British novelist


“Freedom does not depend on the executive government, nor upon the administration of justice, nor upon any one particular or distinct part, nor even upon forms so much as it does on the general freedom of speech and of writing…speech ought to be completely free, without any restraint whatever, in any government pretending to be free. By being completely free, I do not mean that a person should not be liable to punishment for abusing that freedom, but I mean freedom in the first instance. …I never heard of any danger arising to a free state from the freedom of the press, or freedom of speech; so far from it, I am perfectly clear that a free state cannot exist without both.”

Charles James Fox, 1749-1806, British politician and reformer


“The primacy of the word, basis of the human psyche, that has in our age been used for mind-bending persuasion and brain-washing pulp, disgraced by Goebbels and debased by advertising copy, remains a force for freedom that flies out between all bars.”

Nadine Gordimer, 1923 – , South African novelist


“The very aim and end of our institutions is just this: that we may think what we like and say what we think.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1809-1894, American physician and writer


“To speak his thoughts is every freeman’s right, in peace and war, in council and in fight.”

Homer, pre 700BC, father of Greek literature


“Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent and debate.”

Hubert Humphrey, 1911-1978, US Senator and Presidential candidate


“Freedom and order are not incompatible…truth is strength…free discussion is the very life of truth.”

Thomas Henry Huxley, 1825-1895, British biologist


“Deliberation and debate is the way you stir the souls of our democracy.”

Jesse Jackson, 1941 – , American civil rights campaigner and preacher


“In order that all men may be taught to speak the truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it.”

Samuel Johnson, 1709-1794, British essayist


“It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.”

Joseph Joubert, 1754-1824, French essayist


“Having a good discussion is like having riches.”

Kenyan proverb


“People demand freedom of speech to make up for the freedom of thought which they avoid.”

Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855, Danish philosopher


“Be still when you have nothing to say; when genuine passion moves you, say what you’ve got to say, and say it hot”.

DH Lawrence, 1885-1930, British novelist, poet and essayist


“Free speech is a bourgeois prejudice.” 

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, 1870-1924, Russian revolutionary leader


“Freedom to speak… can be maintained only by promoting debate.”

Walter Lippmann, 1889-1974, American journalist


“Freedom of expression must be considered sacred and thought can only be corrected by counter thought.”

Naguib Mahfouz, 1911 – , Egyptian writer


“In all intellectual debates, both sides tend to be correct in what they affirm, and wrong in what they deny.”

John Stuart Mill, 1806-1873, British philosopher


“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

John Milton, 1606-1664, British poet


“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

George Orwell, 1903-1950, British writer


“Speech is external thought, and thought internal speech.”

Antoine Rivarol, 1753-1801, French journalist


“I believe in active citizenship, for men and women equally, as a simple matter of right and justice. I believe we will have better government in all of our countries when men and women discuss public issues together and make their decisions on the basis of their different areas of experience and their common concern for the welfare of their families and their world.”

Eleanor Roosevelt, 1884-1962, chair of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafting committee


“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression–everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way–everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want…everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear…anywhere in the world. That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.”

Franklin D Roosevelt, 1882-1945, US President


“Literature is the immortality of speech.”

August von Schlegel, 1767-1845, German poet and critic


“The first principle of a free society is an untrammeled flow of words in an open forum.”

Adlai E. Stevenson, 1906-1965, American lawyer and politician


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

Francois Voltaire, 1694-1778, French philosopher and writer


“If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.”

George Washington, 1732-1799, first US President


“I have always been among those who believed that the greatest freedom of speech was the greatest safety, because if a man is a fool the best thing to do is to encourage him to advertise the fact by speaking.”

Woodrow Wilson, 1856-1924, US President



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