Quotations about   freedom of the press

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In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.

Hugo Black (1886-1971) American politician and jurist, US Supreme Court Justice (1937-71)
New York Times v. United States, 403 U.S. 713, 717 (1971) [majority opinion]
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Added on 11-Aug-22 | Last updated 11-Aug-22
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The very reason for the First Amendment is to make the people of this country free to think, speak, write and worship as they wish, not as the Government commands.

Hugo Black (1886-1971) American politician and jurist, US Supreme Court Justice (1937-71)
Machinists v. Street, 367 U.S. 740, 788 (1961) [dissenting]
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The case is frequently called "IAM v. Street" (International Association of Machinists).
Added on 28-Jul-22 | Last updated 28-Jul-22
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We’re stronger because we’re democracies. We’re not afraid of free and fair elections, because true legitimacy can only come from one source — and that is the people. We’re not afraid of an independent judiciary, because no one is above the law. We’re not afraid of a free press or vibrant debate or a strong civil society, because leaders must be held accountable. We’re not afraid to let our young people go online to learn and discover and organize , because we know that countries are more successful when citizens are free to think for themselves.

Barack Obama (b. 1961) American politician, US President (2009-2017)
Speech, Nordea Concert Hall, Tallinn, Estonia (3 Sep 2014)
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Added on 26-Apr-22 | Last updated 1-Jun-22
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Despite everything, despite our controversies and despite what is apparently and tragically a sense of divisiveness that permeates our land, and despite riots and rebellions that go hand-in-hand, mind you, with repression and brutality, one major and fundamental guarantee of protracted freedom is the unfettered right of the man to write as he sees fit, as his conscience indicates, as his mood dictates, as his cause cries out for. The moment you begin to censor the writer — and history bears this out in the ugliest of fashions — so begins a process of decay in the body politic that ultimately leads to disaster. What begins with a blue pencil — for whatever reason — very often ends in a concentration camp.

It has forever been thus: So long as men write what they think, then all of the other freedoms — all of them — may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage.

Rod Serling (1924-1975) American screenwriter, playwright, television producer, narrator
“The Challenge of the Mass Media to the 20th Century Writer,” Speech, Library of Congress (15 Jan 1968)
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Quoted in Anne Serling, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (2013).
Added on 5-Apr-22 | Last updated 5-Apr-22
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Right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection. To many this is, and will always be, folly; but we have staked upon it our all.

Learned Hand (1872-1961) American jurist
United States v Associated Press, 52 F. Supp. 362, 372 (1943)
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Added on 4-Feb-22 | Last updated 4-Feb-22
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The nature of liberal democracy prevents propagandistic statements from being banned, since among the liberties it permits is the freedom of speech. But since humans have characteristic rational weaknesses and are susceptible to flattery and manipulation, allowing propaganda has a high likelihood of leading to tyranny, and hence to the end of liberal democracy.

Jason Stanley (b. 1969) American philosopher, epistemologist, academic
How Propaganda Works, ch. 1 (2015)
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Added on 14-Oct-21 | Last updated 14-Oct-21
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Fascism, after all, is not only a historical term; it describes a modern style of authoritarian rule that seeks to mobilize the masses by appealing to nationalism, xenophobia, and populist resentment. Its trademark is the use of democratic procedure even as it seeks to destroy the substantive values of democracy from within. It disdains the free press and seeks to undermine its credibility in the public sphere.

Peter E Gordon
Peter E, Gordon (b. 1966) American intellectual historian
“Why Historical Analogy Matters,” New York Review of Books (7 Jan 2020)
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Added on 2-Sep-21 | Last updated 2-Sep-21
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Censorship laws are blunt instruments, not sharp scalpels. Once enacted, they are easily misapplied to merely unpopular or only marginally dangerous speech.

Alan M. Dershowitz (b. 1938) American lawyer, jurist, political commentator
Finding, Framing, and Hanging Jefferson, ch. 15 (2008)
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Added on 27-May-21 | Last updated 27-May-21
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If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After a while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) American lawyer
Scopes Trial, Dayton, Tennessee (13 Jul 1925)
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Added on 20-May-21 | Last updated 20-May-21
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The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed?

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) German-American philosopher, political theorist
Interview with Roger Errera (Oct 1973), The New York Review of Books (26 Oct 1978)
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Added on 14-Jan-21 | Last updated 14-Jan-21
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Conscience and the press ought to be unrestrained, not because men have a right to deviate from the exact line that duty prescribes, but because society, the aggregate of individuals, has no right to assume the prerogative of an infallible judge, and to undertake authoritatively to prescribe to its members in matters of pure speculation.

William Godwin (1756-1836) English journalist, political philosopher, novelist
Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Book 2, ch. 5 (1793)
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Added on 20-Nov-17 | Last updated 20-Nov-17
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If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be. The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty & property of their constituents. there is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves; nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Charles Yancey (6 Jan 1816)
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Added on 20-Mar-17 | Last updated 8-Jul-22
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The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.

Hugo Black (1886-1971) American politician and jurist, US Supreme Court Justice (1937-71)
New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971) [Majority Opinion]
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Added on 24-Feb-17 | Last updated 24-Feb-17
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A democracy is badly served when newspapers and television focus so intensely on the personal joys and tragedies of famous people. This kind of “news” crowds out more serious issues, and there is an important difference — as the Constitution’s framers well knew, and as many people today appear to have forgotten — between the public interest and what interests the public.

Cass R. Sunstein (b. 1954) American legal scholar
“Reinforce the Walls of Privacy,” New York Times (6 Sep 1997)
Added on 13-Dec-16 | Last updated 13-Dec-16
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I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Voltaire (1694-1778) French writer [pseud. of Francois-Marie Arouet]
(Misattributed)
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The words are not found in any Voltaire and actually belong to historian Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing as S. G. Tallentyre in The Friends of Voltaire (1906), describing an 1759 incident where Voltaire learned that Claude-Adrien Helvétius' book On the Mind [De l’esprit] had been burned (along with Voltaire's own "On Natural Law") after condemnation by the Paris Parliament and the Sorbonne.
‘What a fuss about an omelette!’ he had exclaimed when he heard of the burning. How abominably unjust to persecute a man for such an airy trifle as that! ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,’ was his attitude now.
Hall later wrote to a friend that the actual words were her own and ought not to have had quotation marks.

Variations:
  • I wholly disapprove of what you say -- and will defend to the death your right to say it.
  • Monsieur l’Abbé, je déteste ce que vous écrivez, mais je donnerais ma vie pour que vous puissiez continuer à écrire.
More information here.
Added on 12-Jul-16 | Last updated 12-Jul-16
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If the newspapers of a country are filled with good news, the jails will be filled with good people.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) American politician, diplomat, sociologist
“Moynihan’s Maxim”

Also referred to as "Moynihan's Law." Quoted in The Illustrated Weekly of India (16-22 Oct 1988).
Added on 21-Jun-16 | Last updated 21-Jun-16
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A decent and manly examination of the acts of the Government should be not only tolerated, but encouraged.

William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) American politician, military officer, US President (1841)
Inaugural Address (4 Mar 1841)
Added on 21-Jun-16 | Last updated 21-Jun-16
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Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law (1765)
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Paraphrase: "The people have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge -- I mean of the character and conduct of their rulers."
Added on 16-Jun-16 | Last updated 16-Jun-16
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Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.

Milton - above all liberties - wist_info quote

John Milton (1608-1674) English poet
Areopagitica: a Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing (1644)
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Added on 14-Jun-16 | Last updated 27-Jan-20
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Thus, if the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and press is to mean anything in this field, it must allow protests even against the moral code that the standard of the day sets for the community. In other words, literature should not be suppressed merely because it offends the moral code of the censor.

William O. Douglas (1898-1980) US Supreme Court justice (1939-75)
Roth v. United States, 354 U.S. 476, 513, dissenting opinion (1957)
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Added on 24-May-16 | Last updated 29-Jul-21
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I am inordinately proud these days of the quill, for it has shown itself, historically, to be the hypodermic which inoculates men and keeps the germ of freedom always in circulation, so that there are individuals in every time in every land who are the carriers, the Typhoid Mary’s, capable of infecting others by mere contact and example. These persons are feared by every tyrant — who shows his fear by burning the books and destroying the individuals.

E.B. White (1899-1985) American author, critic, humorist [Elwyn Brooks White]
“Freedom” (Jul 1940)
Added on 25-Feb-16 | Last updated 5-Jul-16
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No man ought to be hindered saying or writing what he pleases on the conduct of those who undertake the management of national affairs, in which all are concerned, and therefore have the right to inquire, and to publish their suspicions concerning them. For if you punish the slanderer, you deter the fair inquirer.

James Burgh (1714-1775) British politician and writer
Political Disquisitions, Book 1 “Of Government, briefly” (1774)
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Added on 11-Dec-14 | Last updated 11-Dec-14
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MILNE: Junk journalism is the evidence of a society that has got at least one thing right, that there should be nobody with the power to dictate where responsible journalism begins.

Tom Stoppard (b. 1937) Czech-English playwright and screenwriter
Night and Day, Act 1 (1978)
Added on 24-Oct-14 | Last updated 24-Oct-14
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MILNE: No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press everything is correctable, and without it everything is concealable.
RUTH: I’m with you on the free press. It’s the newspapers I can’t stand.

Tom Stoppard (b. 1937) Czech-English playwright and screenwriter
Night and Day, Act 1 (1978)
Added on 17-Oct-14 | Last updated 17-Oct-14
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Every dictatorship has ultimately strangled in the web of repression it wove for its people, making mistakes that could not be corrected because criticism was prohibited.

Robert Francis Kennedy (1925-1968) American politician
“Value of Dissent,” speech, Nashville, Tennessee (21 Mar 1968)
Added on 13-Oct-14 | Last updated 13-Oct-14
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A free press stands as one of the great interpreters between the government and the people. To allow it to be fettered is to fetter ourselves.

George Sutherland (1862-1942) Anglo-American jurist, Supreme Court Justice (1922-1938)
Grosjean v. American Press Co., 297 U.S. 233, 250 (1936)
Added on 16-Sep-14 | Last updated 16-Sep-14
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To preserve the freedom of the human mind, then, and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to William Green Mumford (18 Jun 1799)
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Added on 11-Jul-13 | Last updated 3-Aug-22
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How often we recall, with regret, that Napoleon once shot at a magazine editor and missed him and killed a publisher. But we remember, with charity, that his intentions were good.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Letter to Henry Alden (11 Nov 1906)
Added on 25-Oct-12 | Last updated 26-Jan-19
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Another and more special provision has been made by one of the amendments to the Constitution, which expressly declares, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” thereby guarding, in the same sentence, and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press, insomuch that whatever violated either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others, — and that libels, falsehood, and defamation, equally with heresy and false religion, are withheld from the cognizance of federal tribunals.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
“Kentucky Resolutions,” Resolution 3 (1798)
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In protest of the Alien and Sedition Acts.
Added on 13-Sep-12 | Last updated 4-Jul-22
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The firmness with which the people have withstood the late abuses of the press, the discernment they have manifested between truth and falsehood, show that they may safely be trusted to hear everything true and false, and to form a correct judgment between them. As little is it necessary to impose on their senses, or dazzle their minds by pomp, splendor, or forms. Instead of this artificial, how much surer is that real respect, which results from the use of their reason, and the habit of bringing everything to the test of common sense.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to John Tyler (28 Jun 1804)
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Added on 16-May-11 | Last updated 14-Jul-22
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No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to John Tyler (28 Jun 1804)
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Added on 18-Feb-11 | Last updated 14-Jul-22
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Government has an obligation not to inhibit the collection and dissemination of news…. I’m convinced that if reporters should ever lose the right to protect the confidentiality of their sources then serious investigative reporting will simply dry up. The kind of resourceful, probing journalism that first exposed most of the serious scandals, corruption and injustice in our nation’s history would simply disappear …. And let me tell you, reading about one’s failings in the daily papers is one of the privileges of high office in this free country of ours.

Nelson Rockefeller
Nelson Rockefeller (1908–1979) American politician
Speech to the Anti-Defamation League, Syracuse, NY (29 Nov 1972)
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Added on 3-Mar-08 | Last updated 6-Jul-20
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The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly as necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) US President (1901-1909)
“Sedition, A Free Press, and Personal Rule,” Kansas City Star (7 May 1918)
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Reprinted in "Lincoln and Free Speech," The Great Adventure (1926).
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 20-Dec-19
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To limit the press is to insult the nation; to prohibit the reading of certain books is to declare the inhabitants to be either fools or slaves.

Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715-1771) French philosopher
A Treatise on Man: His Intellectual Faculties and His Education [De l’homme] (1772)
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I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of enquiry, and of criminal enquiry too, as an offence against religion: that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? And are we to have a Censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatise religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a Priest to be our Inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, & what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not; and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. If M. de Becourt’s book be false in it’s facts, disprove them; if false in it’s reasoning, refute it. but, for god’s sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we chuse.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) American political philosopher, polymath, statesman, US President (1801-09)
Letter to Nicolas G. Dufief (19 Apr 1814)
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Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 18-Jul-22
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This Nation, I suspect, can live in peace without libel suits based on public discussions of public affairs and public officials. But I doubt that a country can live in freedom where its people can be made to suffer physically or financially for criticizing their government, its actions, or its officials. … An unconditional right to say what one pleases about public affairs is what I consider to be the minimum guarantee of the First Amendment. … I regret that the Court has stopped short of this holding indispensable to preserve our free press from destruction.

Hugo Black (1886-1971) American politician and jurist, US Supreme Court Justice (1937-71)
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) – concurring opinion
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 7-Dec-21
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What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.

Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) Indian novelist
In Weekend Guardian (10 Feb 1990)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 5-Jul-16
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Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is the hallmark of an authoritarian regime.

Potter Stewart (1915-1985) US Supreme Court Justice (1959-81)
United States v. Ginzburg, 383 U.S. 463 (1965) [Dissenting]
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 5-Jul-16
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The First Amendment is often inconvenient. But that is beside the point. Inconvenience does not absolve the government of its obligation to tolerate speech.

Anthony Kennedy (b. 1936) US Supreme Court Justice
International Society for Krishna Consciousness v. Lee, 505 U.S. 672 (26 Jun 1992) [concurring[
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Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 17-Jul-14
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