Marketplace of Ideas

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The ‘marketplace of ideas’ is a rationale for freedom of expression based on an analogy to the economic concept of a free market. The ‘marketplace of ideas’ belief holds that the truth will emerge from the competition of ideas in free, transparent public discourse. This concept is often applied to discussions of patent law as well as freedom of the press and the responsibilities of the media in a liberal democracy.

The general idea is that free speech should be tolerated because it will lead toward the truth. English poet John Milton suggested that restricting speech was not necessary because ‘in a free and open encounter,’ truth would prevail. President Thomas Jefferson argued that it is safe to tolerate ‘error of opinion … where reason is left free to combat it.’ Journalism professor Fredrick Siebert echoed the idea that free expression is self-correcting in ‘Four Theories of the Press’: ‘Let all with something to say be free to express themselves. The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other.’ 

The metaphor was first developed by British political economist John Stuart Mill in his book, ‘On Liberty’ in 1859 (although he never uses the term ‘marketplace’). It next appeared in 1919 in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s dissenting opinion for ‘Abrams v. United States’ (which upheld the Sedition Act, which penalized speech that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light or interfered with the sale of government bonds). He argued that the government was interfering with the ‘free trade in ideas’ within ‘the competition of the market.’ The specific phrase ‘marketplace of ideas’ first appears in a concurring opinion by Justice William O. Douglas in the Supreme Court decision ‘United States v. Rumely’ in 1953: ‘Like the publishers of newspapers, magazines, or books, this publisher bids for the minds of men in the marketplace of ideas.’

If beliefs such as religions are considered as ideas, the marketplace of ideas concept favors a marketplace of religions rather than forcing a state religion or forbidding incompatible beliefs. In this sense, it provides a rationale for freedom of religion. However, in recent years questions have arisen regarding the existence of markets in ideas. Several scholars have noted differences between the way ideas are produced and consumed and the way more traditional goods are produced and consumed. It has also been argued that the idea of the marketplace of ideas as applied to religion ‘incorrectly assumes a level playing field’ among religions. In addition, the idea of a marketplace of ideas has been applied to the study of scientific research as a social institution.

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