17 Feb 2009

Free speech broadens the mind

Dr Nigel Warburton

Dr Nigel Warburton

Britain has always prided itself in allowing people to speak their minds. But the recent ban on controversial Dutch MP, Geert Wilders from entering the UK, resulted in many people questioning the true meaning of freedom of speech.

Dr Nigel Warburton, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at The Open University, says the result of the ban was that every broadsheet ran the story. “What struck me about the response was that journalists had all - as I have - watched his film Fitna, which is still freely available on the Internet. The ban drew more attention to the film, and scores of people voiced their opinion on the internet.

“The liberal consensus is that our hard won freedom of speech is being eroded by panicking lawmakers. But new channels of communication mean we can access a far wider range of views than ever before. Freedom of speech means tolerating even potentially offensive speech, and it is important in a democracy. Often we don’t know what we really believe until we are challenged to argue the point. And when presented with a range of opinions, we can still choose what we read or listen to.”

Dr Warburton believes that the ban has resulted in more people being exposed to views they would not otherwise have encountered. “This is an unintended good consequence. Not only are we better informed, but we probably have a better idea of what we think about the wider issues as a result.”

You can listen to Dr Warburton’s podcast, Offensive views can energise us, on The Guardian’s Comment is Free podcasts (17 February).

In his new book, Free Speech: A very short introduction (published by Oxford University Press), Dr Warburton examines the arguments for and against free speech. He looks at issues ranging from Holocaust denial to pornography and offers a concise guide to important questions facing modern society about the value and limits of free speech.

Editor’s Notes:
Nigel Warburton is best known for his introductory Philosophy books: Philosophy: The Basics; Thinking from A to Z; Philosophy: The Classics; Philosophy: Basic Readings; Freedom: An Introduction with Readings; and The Art Question, all of which are published by Routledge.

His podcast successes includes Philosophy Bites ( that has had over 3 million downloads, and Philosophy: The Classics (, which has just passed the million download mark.

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