Thomas Paine: We must be “answerable for” our free speech

Free speech does not mean speech free from consequences. Be it people complaining about being “canceled” for their incendiary speech, or being removed from private businesses for speech that goes against their rules, ideas about censorship have lost touch with what free speech entails. Thomas Paine understood that with the power of free speech comes the requirement to become answerable for that speech.

In 1806, Paine wrote:

If a man makes the press utter atrocious things he becomes as answerable for them as if he had uttered them by word of mouth. Mr. Jefferson has said in his inaugural speech, that “error of opinion might be tolerated, when reason was left free to combat it.” This is sound philosophy in cases of error. But there is a difference between error and licentiousness.

Liberty of the Press, 1806

Paine understood the power of purveyors of misinformation could wield over a society, and felt that the privilege of living in a free country should not provide unlimited protections for those who sought to abuse their rights. He wrote:

There ought to be some regulation with respect to the spirit of denunciation that now prevails. If every individual is to indulge his private malignancy or his private ambition, to denounce at random and without any kind of proof, all confidence will be undermined and all authority be destroyed. Calumny is a species of treachery that ought to be punished as well as any other kind of treachery. It is a private vice productive of public evils; because it is possible to irritate men into disaffection by continual calumny who never intended to be disaffected.

It is therefore equally as necessary to guard against the evils of unfounded or malignant suspicion as against the evils of blind confidence. It is equally as necessary to protect the characters of public officers from calumny as it is to punish them for treachery or misconduct.

To George Jacques Danton May 6, 1793

No one has the right to say anything they want, free of consequences. Paine understood that.

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