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There is, and has always been, an abiding tension in first amendment theory. At times, freedom of speech is conceived as having a very practical purpose – as implementing a system designed for yielding truth, or good public policy. Thus, Zechariah Chafee wrote that the first amendment protects the "social interest in the attainment of truth, so that the country may not only adopt the wisest course of action but carry it out in the wisest way," and Alexander Meiklejohn spoke frequently of the first amendment as a practical plan for a self-governing society, engendering "wise decisions." This vision of freedom of speech, however, does not lead to the conclusion that only speech that can be shown to make a contribution to the search for truth, or wise policy, receives protection. The speech we dislike and believe harmful may still be offered shelter within the first amendment; but, if it is, it will generally be regarded as a necessary evil, protected because we recognize that we are fallible – we cannot eradicate speech we perceive as harmful and debasing without diminishing that which is beneficial.


First Amendment | Law


The First Amendment, Democracy, and Romance by Steven H. Shiffrin, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990, pp. viii, 285, $29.95.