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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 or the best policy arises out of the competition of widely various ideas in free, transparent public discourse, an important part of liberal democracy. This concept is often applied to discussions of patent law as well as freedom of the press and the responsibilities of the media. More recently the term has come into use by educators in higher education who have linked the concept to academic freedom.

The concept of the "marketplace of ideas" is often attributed to Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s dissenting opinion in Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919). Interestingly, while Justice Holmes (1919) implied the idea in his dissenting opinion, he never used the term. Holmes (1919) stated:

Oliver Wendell Holmes
Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition...But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas...that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.

The term "marketplace of ideas" was used in the 1967 Supreme Court decision, Keyishian v. Board of Regents in which the Court stated that "The classroom is peculiarly the "marketplace of ideas."[1]

Despite these rulings, the concept of the classroom as the "marketplace of ideas" was not born in the twentieth century. As Richard Hofstadter and Walter Metzger (1955) have rightly pointed out, the concept has ancient and nineteenth century roots. The idea can be traced to Socrates and Aristotle. The Socratic Method is the pedagogical embodiment of the "Marketplace of Ideas." In the modern era, John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1859) and Thomas Jefferson, provided their own explication of the "marketplace of ideas." Making reference to the University of Virginia Jefferson said, "This institution will be based upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it" (Letter, Jefferson to William Roscoe, 1820).

In 1813, as part of a correspondence with Isaac McPherson, Thomas Jefferson wrote on the issues confronting patent law: "That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation."[2]

These concepts were based largely on the ideas of John Milton's central argument for freedom of expression, which was that the individual is capable of using reason and distinguishing right from wrong, good from bad. In order to be able to exercise this reason correctly, the individual must have unlimited access to the ideas of his fellow men in "a free and open encounter." From Milton's writings developed the concept of the open marketplace of ideas, the idea that when people argue against each other the better argument will prevail. He wrote, "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." Milton's principles of the "self-righting process" and "open marketplace of ideas" were promoted by Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson took it to heart and argued that, "any government which can not stand up to published criticism deserves to fall".[3]

Thomas Jefferson, who was highly scrutinized by the press, said further, "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." –Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787. ME 6:57. [4]

The idea of a "marketplace of ideas" has also been applied to the study of scientific research as a social institution.


  1. ^ Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 605-606 (1967).
  2. ^ Marketplace of Ideas or Tag Sale?, Steven Johnson, The Nation, November 29, 2001
  3. ^ Terror on the internet, The New Arena, the New Challenges; Gabriel Weimann. 2006. Chap. 7 Balancing Security and Civil Liberties, pg. 232.
  4. ^ Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government- Freedom of the Press:


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