Understanding Freedom of Speech

The conversations about free speech that are beginning to take place at state and federal levels are long overdue. It appears that there are at least some who are concerned that political correctness has finally overstepped the bounds of reasonableness.

The concept of freedom of speech as a basic human right can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. The senate reforms in Athens in 590 B.C. enshrined this right in state legislature. England’s Bill of Rights (1689), the French Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizens (1789) and America’s First Amendment to the United States Constitution (1791) also wrote this right into constitutional law. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) declared that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Of course, free speech doesn’t mean that we can say anything. Free speech must be exercised within legal limits.  For example, libel and slander are not permitted. This is known as the principle of harm; my free speech must not harm another person. Until recently, this has still allowed for a wide diversity of expression. John Stuart Mill’s classic literary work, “On Liberty”, stated:

“…there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”

This right of free speech is one of the key factors that differentiates a free democracy from a repressive regime.

But in recent times a new restriction has been introduced, not so much in legislature but in general social usage; the principle of offense. I must not offend anyone by what I say. The problem here is the nebulous nature of this concept. Harm was reasonably easy to define, but offense is a purely subjective thing. What offends one person won’t offend another. There is no objective means of defining the demarcation line between offense and non-offense. All that is necessary is for someone to say, “You have offended me”, and my free speech has suddenly become unacceptable.

Furthermore, the concept of offense has been expanded to incorporate simple disagreement of viewpoints. Those within our society who are defensive, insecure and unable to listen to an alternate viewpoint simply wave the “offense” card in the air, and they can shut down all opinions except their own. And if I persist in voicing my alternate viewpoint, they apparently now have the right to label my speech as hateful.

This is a reversion to the immature politics of the preschool. The child who is disagreed with, responds, “You hate me!” The child who doesn’t get their way, replies, “You hate me!” This is the kind of immature polemic that now dominates any attempt at reasonable discourse.

This current threat to free speech does not arise solely from the state, but also from the mob-like defensive censorship of our fellow citizens on social media and in the press. The cry of “hate speech” has become the ultimate weapon to shut down discussion and ensure that those who are insecure and sensitive never have to listen to an alternate viewpoint. This desire to never be offended by having to consider a different opinion is unhealthy in the extreme, both for individuals and for society as a whole. As an individual, if I only allow voices that agree with me, I am doomed to repeat my own failures and I am denying myself the opportunity to learn and grow and develop. The same is true as a society. When discussion of free-ranging ideas is censored or shut down, either by state sanction or mob-like social approbation, we become poorer, narrower, shallower and less informed.

These are critical issues, and we would do well to reflect on the wise words of past libertarians:

  • “If freedom of speech is taken away, then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” (George Washington)
  • “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” (George Orwell)
  • “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”  (G. Tallentyre, The Friends of Voltaire)
  • “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.” (Oscar Wilde)
  • “Censorship is a form of lynching” (Henry Loius Gates)
  • “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” (John Milton)
  • “Freedom of speech doesn’t protect speech you like; it protects speech you don’t like” (Larry Flint)