Interesting essay by Steven Nadler, arguing that freedom of expression, without restraint, benefits the state as well as its citizens
Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch thinker, may be among the more enigmatic (and mythologized) philosophers in Western thought, but he also remains one of the most relevant, to his time and to ours. He was an eloquent proponent of a secular, democratic society, and was the strongest advocate for freedom and tolerance in the early modern period. The ultimate goal of his “Theological-Political Treatise” — published anonymously to great alarm in 1670, when it was called by one of its many critics “a book forged in hell by the devil himself”— is enshrined both in the book’s subtitle and in the argument of its final chapter: to show that the “freedom of philosophizing” not only can be granted “without detriment to public peace, to piety, and to the right of the sovereign, but also that it must be granted if these are to be preserved.”
Spinoza was incited to write the “Treatise” when he recognized that the Dutch Republic, and his own province of Holland in particular, was wavering from its uncommonly liberal and relatively tolerant traditions. He feared that with the rising political influence in the 1660s of the more orthodox and narrow-minded elements in the Dutch Reformed Church, and the willingness of civil authorities to placate the preachers by acting against works they deemed “irreligious,” “licentious” and “subversive,” the nearly two decades-long period of the “True Freedom” was coming to an end. The “Treatise” is both a personally angry book — a friend of Spinoza’s, the author of a radical treatise, had recently been thrown in prison, where he soon died — and a very public plea to the Dutch republic not to betray the political, legal and religious principles that made its flourishing possible.
…Well before John Stuart Mill, Spinoza had the acuity to recognize that the unfettered freedom of expression is in the state’s own best interest. In this post-9/11 world, there is a temptation to believe that “homeland security” is better secured by the suppression of certain liberties than their free exercise. This includes a tendency by justices to interpret existing laws in restrictive ways and efforts by lawmakers to create new limitations, as well as a willingness among the populace, “for the sake of peace and security,” to acquiesce in this. We seem ready not only to engage in a higher degree of self-censorship, but also to accept a loosening of legal protections against prior restraint (whether in print publications or the dissemination of information via the Internet), unwarranted surveillance, unreasonable search and seizure, and other intrusive measures.  Spinoza, long ago, recognized the danger in such thinking, both for individuals and for the polity at large. He saw that there was no need to make a trade-off between political and social well-being and the freedom of expression; on the contrary, the former depends on the latter.
(click here to continue reading Spinoza and The First Amendment – NYTimes.com.)