Prove All Things, Hold Fast the Good

Humans have a tendency to confuse means with ends. Thoreau relates in Walden the amusement he felt when young male visitors told him that, once they made enough money, they would like to live like him. To them, a life in the woods was an end to be realized when thy acquired the means; to Thoreau, life at Walden Pond was, of course, the means in itself. "I went to the woods," he wrote, "because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life...."

Free speech, like life at Walden, is not an end but a means. There are some who do not value it, don't wish it for themselves or, if they have it, will not grant it to anyone else. But there are more people, raised in our democracy, who value free speech somewhat, but think it is a luxury we cannot currently afford. The ground is not fertile enough. "We could have free speech," these people say, "if we were more mature....if these weren't such dangerous times....if there were not people ready to abuse it....if we were ready for it." The morality of this statement is the same as those of military dictators who overthrow a democratically elected government, in order to return the country to democracy "when the time is right." But the time is never right. Viewing freedom of speech as an end, means the end of free speech.

Freedom of speech is the first freedom. It is the cornerstone upon which all other freedoms are based. The others are not possible without it. There can be no equality without the freedom to speak up and demand change when equality is denied. Thus, the freedom of speech is the means by which we obtain all other liberty. If we cannot afford it now, we will never afford it later. You must buy it with all that you possess, when you are poor, in order to have any kind of riches later.

We must hold to the foolish but brave optimism through which we have survived these millenia. For the moment one has said of his fellows, "they are not ready for free speech, they are not worthy of it," one has declared a lack of faith which means no effort, no altruism, is worth the candle either. This is a form of moral suicide. Through a fear of dying later, you have killed yourself now.

Censorship, said Milton, is "to the common people [not] less than a reproach; for if we be so jealous over them, as that we dare not trust them with an English pamphlet, what do we but censure them for a giddy, vicious, and ungrounded people; in such a sick and weak state of faith and discretion, as to be able to take nothing down but through the pipe of a licenser?"

Democracy implies as a necessary condition that our opinions are worthwhile, and liberty similarly demands adults to receive it and exercise it knowingly and moderately. But there is no way to train children up to democracy than through choice, or to liberty except through letting loose the restraints. A child who is never called upon to dress himself will not know how to do so as a man. "The best way," Harry Truman said, "to find out if you can trust a man, is to trust him." It is not only the best way to find out; you can train people to be trustworthy by placing confidence in them. Trust is a marvellous irrigant; it makes even barren lands bloom. Milton described the self reliance, the trust of others, which is the root of freedom of speech: "Read any books whatever come to thy hands, for thou art sufficient both to judge aright, and to examine each matter.... Prove all things, hold fast that which is good...."

These words, written three centuries ago, express all of the hope, and warn of all the danger, that we face today. The Congress of today is no more enlightened than the Parliament of that time. The liberty of speech must be defended anew in every generation. Milton speaks as much to our Congress as to his Parliament.