When Dr. Stockmann accuses Hovstad of also being a freethinker, Hovstad defends himself on the grounds that he has never claimed to be a freethinker in print. In other words, Hovstad does not deny that he is a freethinker in private, but he merely asserts that he is never a freethinker in the public eye. He is afraid to let the majority know that he is a freethinker. By claiming never to be a freethinker in print, Hovstad proves the doctor's point: Intelligent individuals cannot act on their opinions because of fear of the majority.
By staging the speech in a very public setting, Ibsen takes an opportunity to illustrate how the conventions of democracy can be manipulated by those in power. The doctor has convened this public meeting to read his report, but by electing a chairman and conducting the meeting according to vague parliamentary rules, the mayor and the newspapermen are able to shut the doctor up. This shows that the tyranny of the majority is not absolute.