Editor's Choice

The perils of free speech

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.327.7427.0-h (Published 04 December 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:0-h
  1. Smith Richard, editor (rsmith{at}bmj.com)

    An enthusiasm for free speech can lead you into strange company. For the past two weeks I've been receiving a stream of emails from “AIDS deniers” (those who are sceptical of the connection between HIV and AIDS) praising me for my love of debate. The praise follows an article in Nature (20 November, p 215) in which AIDS researchers criticised the BMJ for allowing “AIDS deniers” to post dozens of rapid responses on our website. If you search on bmj.com for material on AIDS then much of what you will discover questions the connection between HIV and AIDS. (If, however, you search “articles only,” which excludes rapid responses, you'll find little such material.)

    On Friday I opened the Times (28 November, p 31) and discover that I'm quoted with approval by Lord Harris of High Cross, a former chairman of Forest, the “voice and friend of the smoker.” The quote came in response to the fury that followed our publishing research on passive smoking funded by the tobacco industry. “We must,” I wrote, “be interested in whether passive smoking kills, and the question has not been definitively answered.” Reading the quote on a Forest advertisement tightens my anus, but I wrote it and can't deny it.

    If you can tell a man by the company he keeps, then I'm going off the public health rails. But why? It's because of the deep commitment of the BMJ to unfettered debate. Those who read our rapid responses will find strange beasts, contorted prose, and rank nonsense. But the babblings of fools and lunatics are not always easy to distinguish from the mutterings of genius.

    When taken to task over some of the rubbish we post as rapid responses I always resort to Milton because of his beautiful writing and clarity of argument: “Give me,” he wrote, “the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. Truth was never put to the worse in a free and open encounter… It is not impossible that she [truth] may have more shapes than one… If it come to prohibiting, there is not ought more likely to be prohibited than truth itself, whose first appearance to our eyes bleared and dimmed with prejudice and custom is more unsightly and implausible than many errors… Where there is much desire to learn there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.”

    The most practical argument for free speech comes from the Nobel laureate Amatya Sen, the author of our first editorial (p 1297). He has pointed out that famine does not occur in countries with a free press. This is because famine is a problem of distribution not of absolute lack of food. A free press will create such clamour that a government has to act. The greater value of free speech outweighs the discomfort of foolish thinking.To receive Editor's choice by email each week subscribe via our website: bmj.com/cgi/customalert

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