Even speech we hate should be free

Almost a century later, Holmes’s narrowly defined case has been distorted into an access-all-areas ticket for restrictions on freedom of speech. It is dusted off and hauled on stage in many debates involving points of view that someone finds offensive. It got lots of play early this year, for instance, after Islamists massacred the staff of Charlie Hebdo, a Paris satirical newspaper, for the ostensible crime of mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

In later cases, Holmes came down firmly in favor of freedom of speech even when he strongly disapproved of the sentiments expressed.

In 1929, for example, a majority of the justices ruled that a Hungarian refugee, Rosika Schwimmer, should be denied U.S. citizenship because she admitted that, as a dedicated pacifist, she would be unable to take up arms to defend America. In his dissenting minority opinion, Holmes observed, “Some of her answers might excite popular prejudice, but if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”