Jefferson and Free Speech:

One of the threads in the comments on the postings regarding a recent obscenity conviction (upheld by the 4th Circuit) for "receipt of obscene cartoons" involved my friend Mr. Jefferson, and his views on the First Amendment and "the freedom of speech." One reader added a helpful link to Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions, in which he argued that the Sedition Act, "which does abridge the freedom of the press, is not law, but is altogether void, and of no force."

I always like to comment on Jeffersoniana, and in this case his views really do help to explain my own. I spend a fair bit of time in my book on Jefferson and the Internet -- you haven't forgotten to get a copy of my book, have you??! -- talking about Jefferson's free speech positions, both because they're interesting in and of themselves and because they're of particular relevance to the many speech-restricting laws that have been enacted in response to Internet communication. I devote a chapter late in the book to comparing Jefferson's views on free speech law with his views on intellectual property law -- the two issues that "have been featured in virtually all of the Internet's Big Cases, the legal disputes generating lots of public debate and commentary, the ones that made it onto the onto the docket of the Supreme Court or the front page of the New York Times, during the first couple of decades of its existence."

Here's an excerpt (Jefferson's words in italics) [I've posted a copy of the free speech discussion at the website, if you want to see the full discussion]:

In no subjects in the law was Jefferson more interested, and about no subjects in the law did he have more interesting and important things to say, than these two [i.e., free speech and intellectual property]. His views regarding the line between permissible and impermissible speech were pretty simple -- there shouldn't be any line, because there shouldn't be any impermissible speech. Jefferson was America's first, and probably its greatest, First Amendment absolutist; he wasn't kidding when he said were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. Not even a moment!! To preserve the freedom of the human mind & freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, & speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.

It was all an inter-connected whole, for Jefferson -- republican self-government, freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of the press. You couldn't have one without the others; they were inextricably bound together into a single system, and they would stand, or fall, together. The principle of self-government -- government not imposed on the governed but operating with the consent of the governed -- meant that everyone had a stake, and an equal stake, in governing: The true foundation of republican government is the equal right of every citizen in his person and his property, and in their management. The mother principle, he called it: Governments are "republican" only in proportion as they embody the will of their people and execute it. Everyone, henceforth, gets to form his or her own opinions on all questions of public import, and regarding the administration of the laws: No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness [than to] enable every man to judge for himself what will secure, or endanger, his freedom.

It is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions [and] that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual way hitherto found is the freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions. . . .

Unrestricted public discourse, and an unfettered press, were the only "avenues to truth," because nobody ever knows, in advance, where the truth may lie. Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. In a Jeffersonian world, the government simply has no role to play in telling us what we may think or what we may say. Freedom of discussion, unaided by power, is sufficient for the propagation and protection of truth. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Governments may trample upon these rights of free speech and free thought and free inquiry by force, but they can never do legitimately, by right.

The right to speak and to think as we wish is a "natural right"; it is neither given to us by law, nor derived from law, but antecedent to it -- lower down in the protocol stack, if you will, than law. It derives not from the statute books but from what Jefferson called, in the Declaration of Independence, the laws of Nature and of Nature's God -- it is just in the "nature" of things, the way the world is, that if you bring two human beings together, they will think, and they will attempt to communicate with one another about what they are thinking, even without any law to help them. . . .

Humans communicate with one another not because the law enables them to do so; they communicate with one another because -- well, because that's the kind of beings we are, and that is what is in our nature. Law's job is not to enable that communication to occur but to protect it when it does occur -- that is one of the "objects for the protection of which" we make law. . . .

And finally, some powerful positive feedback: only by forming a government that doesn't trample upon these rights can we preserve our ability to create a government that doesn't trample upon these rights. Where the press is free, all is safe. Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press; it cannot be limited without being lost. Limit our freedom to think and speak as we wish, and republican government can't work -- that is, it can't produce a government that will protect and preserve our right to think and speak as we wish. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness [than to] enable every man to judge for himself what will secure, or endanger, his freedom. Without this no republic can maintain itself in strength. [The United States] will demonstrate the falsehood of the pretext that freedom of the press is incompatible with orderly government. To open the doors of truth, and to fortify the habit of testing everything by reason, are the most effectual manacles we can rivet on the hands of our successors to prevent their manacling the people with their own consent. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe. . . .

To a Jeffersonian, then, free speech questions are always simultaneously (a) of supreme importance and (b) pretty easy. The answer always (or almost always) is simple: The more protection for, and the fewer the restrictions on, speech, the better. Lay down true principles, and adhere to them inflexibly.

[Not so for intellectual property, by the way -- but that's a different matter entirely]