History of Freedom of Speech

Table of Content

Democracy can be defined within Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as the “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Unlike some other forms of government, democracy cultivates equality and protects individual rights and liberties. Several of today’s democratic ideals derive from the Enlightenment period, which was the intellectual and philosophical movement in the eighteenth century that promoted the spread of new ideas.

The ideas of the Enlightenment inspired both revolutions for America and France, as well as documents such as the American Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. One particular Enlightenment philosopher, Voltaire, urged the necessity of freedom of speech. According to Faust Rossi, professor of law at Cornell, “Freedom of speech is said to be the most cherished of our constitutional rights, it is the essence of our democracy” (Gold). While freedom of speech is such a paramount component of democracy, it has been proven to be undeniably difficult.

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Without freedom of speech, individuals within a society cannot speak out about what they believe in, and they would live in fear and condemnation. Therefore, the basis of democracy would be absent. However, with freedom of speech comes the possibility of issues such as violence, offended individuals, hate, and untruthful rumors. This is why freedom of speech makes democracy so difficult. Not only are the difficulties of freedom of speech exhibited within the French Revolution, but they are also illustrated in Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, which was set during the time of the French Revolution. Furthermore, the difficulties of freedom of speech continue to be a battle that America’s modern democratic society is still fighting today.

During the French Revolution, the Third Estate did not have the right to freedom of speech. This is especially apparent in the Reign of Terror and Robespierre’s Republic of Virtue. The Third Estate suffered in pecuniary matters, for they “were heavily taxed and discontented” (Spielvogel 212), as well as deficient of rights and a say in government. In response, King Louis XVI called the Estates-General meeting. Following this meeting, the Third Estate began meeting in what they called the National Assembly; they swore the Tennis Court Oath in 1789, “affirmed the ‘rights of man’ and set up a limited monarchy in the Constitution of 1791” (Spielvogel 215). In 1791, the National Assembly called themselves the Legislative Assembly, which in turn would become the National Convention. The National Convention soon split into two factions of the Jacobins called the Girondins and the Mountain. As “the Revolution in France was plunging into a downward spiral, devolving into terror” (Dunn 15), “the National Convention gave broad powers to a special committee of 12, the Committee of Public Safety” (Spielvogel 221). When French revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre led this committee after George Danton, he used terror to keep the revolution safe from supposed threats. For this reason, this period of time is known as the Reign of Terror. Citizens could not voice their opinions, grievances, concerns, or indignities or else they would be killed. His atrocious leadership was obvious. “Between 1793 and 1794, tens of thousands of French citizens were executed on the guillotine or died in prison for their allegedly disloyal remarks, writings, or other expressions and actions” (Pomerance 138). Robespierre expressed this in the Republic of Virtue, “a democratic republic composed of good citizens” (Spielvogel 222). “In his speech of February 5, 1794, Robespierre provided a comprehensive statement of his political theory, in which he equated democracy with virtue and justified the use of terror in defending democracy” (Perry 120). Without freedom of speech, French citizens were silenced and denied of basic civil liberties. When Robespierre is in power, democracy becomes tyranny. This alleged democracy cannot function as it was meant to without this basic right. Therefore, democracy is difficult when citizens are executed for and denied of freedom of speech.

In Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, the right to freedom of speech was absent. As illustrated within the French Revolution, the lack of freedom of speech fuels madness that devastates the nation. These circumstances, resulting from the lack of freedom of speech, are ubiquitous throughout A Tale of Two Cities in the form of mobs. The Third Estate in the novel mirrors the Third Estate during the French Revolution, for they were mistreated, poor, and without rights, particularly freedom of speech. In their dwelling, “full of offence and stench” (Dickens 34), these impoverished people were suffering from “hunger [that was] prevalent everywhere” (Dickens 34). The Third Estate, jobless, hungry, poor, and destitute of all privileges, had voices that were silenced. Dickens illuminates this social divide in dialogue from upper-class, where the peasants are referred to as “scarecrows” (Dickens 113), “dogs” (Dickens 116), and “rats” (Dickens 117). Believing that it was necessary to result to mob violence and rebellion because they did not have the essential right to freedom of speech, the Third Estate emerged from their shadows, fully aware of the consequences. Uniting as a mob, the Third Estate became reckless, personified as “a sea of black and threatening waters, and of destructive upheaving of wave against wave, whose depths were yet unfathomed and whose forces were yet unknown” (Dickens 226). For example, in the novel, members of the Third Estate in Saint Antoine heard that their enemy, “old Foulon, who told the famished people that they might eat grass, and who died, and went to Hell… [has been] found alive” (Dickens 229), which sent them into a “blind frenzy” (Dickens 230) for revenge. They desired revenge because of what Foulon said about them, and they could not speak their opinions. The members of the mob “were terrible… a sight to chill the boldest” (Dickens 230). As a mob they became unaccountable for their wrongdoings, so they would chant cries such as “Give us the blood of Foulon, give us the head of Foulon, give us the heart of Foulon, give us the body and soul of Foulon” (Dickens 230). The mob violently tortured Foulon. They “bound [him] with ropes” (Dickens 231) and “bunches of grass and straw… thrust[ed] into his face by hundreds of hands” (Dickens 232). After “two or three hours of brawl” (Dickens 231), “his head was soon upon a pike” (Dickens 232). The violent and fatal torture of Foulon is just one of the instances of mob violence that Dickens describes in the novel. If the Third Estate was given freedom of speech, this terrible event could have been prevented, or at least less extreme. Citizens suffering from the deprivation of freedom of speech will do whatever is necessary to voice their opinions, which is why democracy is difficult with the lack of freedom of speech.

As shown, freedom of speech, a basic human right and necessary component for democracy, is absolutely required, but not easy. Because of its difficulty, “real world liberal democracies never fully live up to their underlying ideals of freedom and equality” (Fukuyama 48). Although the United States’ right to freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, evidence found in modern society shows that this right is diminishing. This idea is shared by Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. In his book, Freedom from Speech, Lukianoff states, “[People in the present generation] stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech [they dislike]” (Lukianoff). Lukianoff suggests that freedom of speech is not upheld to the high standard at which it used to be, for the reason that society does not want to hear opinions or views they disagree with. For instance, University of California Berkeley denied the right for conservative speakers to speak at their campus in 2017. According to a Washington Post article, “Controversy at Berkeley erupted in early 2017, when violent protests and security fears forced the cancellation of events featuring controversial right-wing speakers, including Milo Yiannopoulos, David Horowitz and Ann Coulter” (Zapotosky). University of California Berkeley is a prime example of the current generation wanting freedom from speech they dislike. The students restrict speakers advocating conservativism to voice their opinions, while the school claims to support freedom of speech. According to its website, University of California Berkeley holds free speech as “one of [their] most cherished values”, and “it is both part of [their] legacy as the home of the Free Speech Movement as well as central to [their] academic mission” (“Berkeley Free Speech”). For University of California Berkeley and for nearly every individual in a democratic society, democracy is difficult in regards to freedom of speech. It is something that is treasured until others want to voice their opinions. University of California Berkeley’s opposition to conservatism is understandable, as it is human nature to not want to listen to something one disagrees with. However, it is unacceptable to deny those one disagrees with the right that democracy holds so high.

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History of Freedom of Speech. (2022, Jul 12). Retrieved from


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