“The Dread of Tyrants”: 5 Quotes on Free Speech

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.Evelyn Beatrice Hall
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 one right which they first of all strike down. —Frederick Douglass

Freedom isn’t free, and staying free is costly. Holding freedom up takes work. The default setting on the freedom toggle is off. “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man, a wise one said, is eternal vigilance.”

I’ll make this short so you can get out and celebrate America’s 245th Birthday. Because we felt it acutely this year: keeping freedom—especially to speak truth in love—required practice and vigilance.

Now for those quotes.

5 Free Speech Quote

1. “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” ~ Benjamin Franklin
2. “It is often a strategic mistake to silence a man, because it leaves the world under the impression that he had something to say.” ~G.K. Chesterton
3. “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” ~ George Washington
4. “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” ~ George Orwell
5. “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” ~ Frederick Douglass

Free Speech: A Liberating Strife?

I’m no political expert. But I know that what makes my muscles strong is weight-bearing exercise. I know that what makes my marriage and friendships, and my church or nation great is not 100% unanimity all the time, but in still being free to both listen, as Frederick Douglass pointed out, and to speak.

What makes for strength is not suppression but endurance, not plugging our ears but hearing what’s hard to hear, not silencing opposition, but staying engaged when we don’t agree.

To promote free speech even when we disapprove is difficult. It may even be painful. Because free speech cuts both ways.

But maybe hearing what we don’t want to hear is a severe mercy and perhaps free speech itself is a sort of liberating strife?

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!

America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

America The Beautiful

—Katharine Lee Bates

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.

Mercy triumphs over judgment.

—James 2:12-13

**Three of the five quotes are from Erwin Lutzer’s 2020 book, We Will Not Be Silenced. Lutzer gave a lively interview—”I think it’s okay to use the word bloody…No, you’re getting just enthusiastic enough.”—to Eric Metaxas this week. You can access that conversation here.