Freedom of speech

"Without free speech no search for truth is possible... no discovery of truth is useful... Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race." — Charles Bradlaugh

Back in 1877, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant published The Fruits of Philosophy, one of the first works advocating birth control. Living in London during those cramped, smoggy, and heavily industrial times can do that to a person.

It wasn’t uncommon for even the poorest families to have 10 children, and for all of them to be either begging on the streets or working in dangerous factories. Yet the church of the day was staunchly against birth control of any kind.

Naturally, they hauled Bradlaugh and Besant to court, where they argued that "we think it more moral to prevent conception of children than, after they are born, to murder them by want of food air and clothing." They were found guilty of obscene libel, and sentenced to six months in prison, but the sentence was overturned on appeal.

In 1880, Bradlaugh was elected to represent Northampton in Parliament, but as he was not a Christian he asked for permission to affirm rather than take the conventional oath of office. The Speaker of the House Refused, and Bradlaugh was expelled from Parliament.

At the time Bradlaugh and associates published a weekly paper called The Freethinker that questioned everything from government to organized religion. In 1882, the government attempted to try the entire staff of the journal for blasphemy, and succeeded in getting two of the contributors thrown into prison.

By the time he died in 1891, Bradlaugh had championed free speech for most of his life. His unwillingness to bend or compromise this principle made him one of the most talked about figures of his day.

Today he is credited by numerous free speech organizations as a trailblazer in the field, and he is often quoted as the battle against censorship and banning books continues.

Schools are banning the original version of Little Red Riding Hood because her basket contained a bottle of wine. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is condemned as racist because it uses the language of the day, while at the same time it remains one of the strongest condemnations against racism ever published.

Any liberal librarian could list a hundred titles that have been banned or otherwise censored from public libraries because they offended a powerful lobby on religious or moral grounds.


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