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Friday, October 09, 2015

Picking our free speech stories and heroes

Interesting discussion by James Wimberley (RBC) about Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar burned for heresy in 1600. Bruno espoused all manner of contrarian ideas--often without proof--including that the stars floated in infinite space surrounded by their own planets and life. Bruno has been somewhat lost to history, overtaken by Galileo, who was convicted by the Inquisition 30 years later, as the great story to illustrate the importance of epistemological humility and of defending ideas that run contrary to those of the governing authorities. (The first episode of the Cosmos reboot, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, told Bruno's story).

Wimberley argues that "Galileo is far too easy a test case for freedom of speech" and that the real challenge is a case like Bruno. Galileo was "demonstrably right" on a matter of scientific fact, meaning the censors were demonstrably wrong. Bruno was a "brilliant crank" who happened to be right about one thing, albeit without actual proof (Wimberley compares him to the people we regularly meet on the internet). Thus, the argument for defending Bruno's speech is different than for defending Galileo's--we defend Bruno "not on the grounds that he was right by chance on one thing, but simply that he was entitled to express opinions that were his own and not those of approved authorities." Moreover, Galileo suffered a forced and formal abjuration (Eppur si muove?) and a "fairly open" house arrest (among his many guests over the years was John Milton, who discussed the meeting in Areopagitica). That is nothing compared to being executed for the ideas one espoused.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on October 9, 2015 at 09:31 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink

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