In praise of Alexander Meiklejohn
In praise of Alexander Meiklejohn
By Jacob Rowbottom, Manchester Evening News, 12/16/2014, original
Newbold-born philosopher, who died 50 years ago today, was champion of free speech.
Today marks 50 years since the death of philosopher and scholar Alexander Meiklejohn – possibly the most influential Rochdalian you’ve never heard of.
While not a household name in his home town, he enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the USA, writes Jacob Rowbottom .
He held a number of prestigious academic posts, including dean of Brown University and president of Amherst College, was an active member of the American Civil Liberties Union and received the Presidential Medal of Honour in 1963, having been nominated by John F Kennedy.
Meiklejohn was born in Newbold, on February 3, 1872, the youngest of eight sons.
His father, James Meiklejohn, worked in the textile industry as a colour mixer.
James was active in Rochdale’s co-operative movement and held political meetings at the family home.
During this time, the young Alexander would have heard debates about the importance of democracy and, according to his biographer Adam Nelson, exposure to those ideas ‘laid the foundation for his own moral and political education’.
Those foundations certainly paid off and today he is best remembered for his work on the relationship between freedom of speech and democracy.
He put forward a simple and powerful idea – that freedom of speech is necessary for democracy to work.
He compared modern democracy to a meeting where people come to together to discuss political issues and make decisions.
Yet to make sure those decisions were ‘wise’, he argued that people must hear all competing arguments and views.
Free speech, he thought, was essential to achieve this.
Yet this was not a recipe for what he described as ‘unregulated talkativeness’, where political debate becomes a free for all.
Controversially, he argued that a moderator could regulate speech to enhance the quality of debate and ensure each relevant view gets a hearing.
To Meiklejohn what was important was ‘not that everyone shall speak’, but that ‘everything worth saying shall be said’.
In his view, freedom of speech meant that every opinion should get a hearing and not be censored simply because others think it is ‘false or dangerous’ or disagree with it.
We can only guess what he would have thought of free speech today, with the multiple opportunities people have to speak on social media.
His high hopes for what democratic debate might achieve seem quaint in our age of cynicism about politics.
While the world looked very different when he wrote, his ideas are still debated by scholars and have been cited by courts in many different countries.
Earlier this year, when David Miranda, partner of former Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, brought a claim arguing that his detention at Heathrow Airport under counter-terrorism powers in connection with the Edward Snowden security leaks story violated press freedom, the High Court referred to the work of Meiklejohn when considering the free speech arguments.
Many contemporary debates about free speech – ranging from libel law, anti-terrorism laws, and the protection of privacy – often come back to Meiklejohn’s powerful observation that people need to speak freely on political issues.
While his career was spent in the USA, having moved there in 1880 at the age of eight, and settled in Rhode Island, his roots were in Rochdale and we should remember the work of the town’s distinguished son in shaping debates about free speech.
Jacob Rowbottom is an associate professor of law at University College, Oxford