The Right to Listen

“Speak, your servant is listening.”
–1 Samuel 3:10

“You can’t persuade people who won’t listen.”
 –Plato, The Republic

Of the four classical virtues—wisdom, courage, temperance, justice—the ancients prized wisdom as the greatest of all. But how is wisdom attained?  Wisdom comes from knowledge.  Knowledge is gained from the search for truth.  But to seek the truth, one must learn.  And to learn, one must know how to—and be allowed to–listen.

When we listen—really listen—we absorb new facts, a different way of understanding these facts, a fresh point of view, or a greater understanding of one that we are familiar with.  We consider, we judge, and we move—we hope accurately—towards a greater apprehension of the truth.

The right to listen is the correlative of the right to speak.  Freedom of speech is meaningless without some other one to hear the speech.  Moreover, where speaker and listener engage in mutual conversation, it often creates a bond between them.  This applies to political societies as well.  When, in 1774, at the close of the First Continental Congress, John Dickinson penned the Letter to the Inhabitants of Quebec, he declared that not only does the freedom of the press advance “truth, science, morality, and arts in general,” but it also abets “ready communication of thoughts between subjects, and its consequential promotion of union among them.”

Throughout the centuries, there have always been those who would stop up the ears of listeners (or mask the eyes of those who wanted to read): licensers, censors, book burners, radio jammers, internet blockers, hecklers’ vetoers, and cancellers.

In 17th century England, no one could publish without permission from the King’s Licenser lest someone read a pamphlet that might be “harmful.”  In one of his greatest works, Areopagitica (1644), John Milton decried licensing and its stunting of the moral growth of human beings.  “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race.”

Censorship has been in every society, but in the United States, government censorship, except in the most narrow category of cases, is no longer permitted. Justice Robert H. Jackson famously declared in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943),  “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

Totalitarian nations have had no dearth of mechanisms to keep disliked messages from being heard.  We have seen Nazi book burners, the U.S.S.R.’s jamming of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, and the Chinese control of the internet, not to speak of the uncounted numbers of dissidents jailed, exiled, interned, and murdered.

In the United States today, however, we face the classic heckler’s veto in the form of the “cancelling culture.” When one prevents another person from speaking, one denies the right of many others to listen. In too many instances, in publishing institutions such as the New York Times,  New York Magazine, Guns & Ammo, Variety, and Bon Appétit, editors and columnists have had to resign for writing or permitting to be published articles whose point of view the management found unacceptable. In many corporations and on many campuses, forced resignations or non-renewal of contracts have occurred for the same reason.

But it is in the law and the legal culture where find that the art of listening is still the most treasured.  In law schools, we teach the skill of how to listen so that the law graduate will be able to discern his or her client’s true interests, or how to satisfy the needs of both parties in a contract negotiation, or how to counter opposing counsel’s argument effectively.  At trial, the judge and the attorneys school juries on what to listen for and on how to judge the evidence.  On the bench, the skilled judge absorbs the complexity of a case by careful listening. Respectful listening and argumentation is the hallmark of a good attorney.

For those of us who teach the law in a university setting of open inquiry, there can be no better place to appreciate the fruits of the treasured right to speak and to listen.

Your Witness is sponsored by the ad hoc Committee on Intellectual Diversity and Civil Discourse of the  CSU Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Comments and proposed submissions should be directed to

Cleveland State University adheres to the University of Chicago Principles on Freedom of Speech.