When Did Freedom of Speech Start?

Socrates was an early advocate for freedom of speech, but didn't live to see it become law.
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As an idea, freedom of speech arguably dates back to Socrates. He said to his prosecutors, "If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind... I should say to you, 'Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.'" Although Socrates was advocating for it more than 2000 years ago, freedom of speech as a legal right did not exist until the 17th century.

1 The Magna Carta

The Magna Carta was written in 1215 and signed into law by King John I of England. This important charter was the first legal document that limited the power of the monarchy and ensured that kings and queens would be bound by the law. Although the Magna Carta did not guarantee freedom of speech, it began a tradition of civil rights in Britain that laid the foundation for the first Bill of Rights, which would be passed more than 400 years later.

2 British Bill of Rights

The British Bill of Rights was written in 1689 and granted freedom of speech in Parliament. This was the first instance in history that any form of freedom of speech was codified into law. The British Bill of Rights granted wide-sweeping freedoms to British citizens and was extremely influential throughout the Western world. It was an inspiration for both the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the United States Constitution.

3 Declaration of the Rights of Man

The Declaration of the Rights of Man, a document written by the National Assembly of the French Revolution, was written in 1789. Unlike the British Bill of Rights, it included a provision for freedom of speech for all citizens, and not only members of Parliament. It reads, "The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may therefore speak, write, and print freely."

4 United States Bill of Rights

In the United States, freedom of speech dates back to the First Amendment. The First Amendment was the first of 10 amendments included in the Bill of Rights, which was added to the United States Constitution in 1791. The First Amendment reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." From this point forward, freedom of speech was firmly established in the United States.

Sara Henderson has been a professional writer and editor since 2008, specializing in food, travel and education. She is pursuing an M.A. in English literature at Middlebury College.