Modern Freedom Of Speech Is A relative Concept

July 7, 2014
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Do you have freedom of speech? Are you entitled to say what you want? On any topic? But what if you don’t like an individual; can you say bad things about them? How about an institution, a corporation, a government, maybe? What if, let’s say, a national security agency has been spying on pretty much everybody in the world at once in violation of personal freedoms… if you have proof, shouldn’t you be allowed to talk about it?

We tend to think of democracy and freedom of speech as going together like peaches and cream, but our license to express ourselves freely is in practice just that, a license. And licenses can be revoked or limited.

While the principle of freedom of speech can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, in a sense, the whole issue became contentious because of the printing press. Invented in the fifteenth century, it provided a means of rapid and bulk dissemination of ideas. Not popular with the ruling body of the day, i.e. the Catholic Church. Within fifty years, the fledgling publishing industry was regulated (by a combination of church and government) and there was a growing list of banned books which basically featured any writing that dared to question the received wisdom or stimulate independent thought (Voltaire, Galileo, Hume, Rousseau, Descartes… that sort of thing).

freedom of speech

Finally, after a century and a half, poet John Milton gave voice to the most famous (if not the first) demand for freedom of speech: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” Later still, philosopher John Stuart Mill argued that all progress depends upon human freedom, including the free discussion of opinion.

So far, so good. Some of the most influential Western thinkers are in favor, but Church and state aren’t too keen. Then, over time, the state comes around. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrines freedom of speech as a fundamental right. Then, post-WWII, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights expressly recognizes freedom of expression as a human right.

So, the real question is: we have it in law, in theory, but do we have it in practice?

Well, yes and no. The Universal Declaration allows for some curtailment, which on the surface seems quite sensible. When exercising your right to freedom of speech, you should do so with respect for the rights of others; fair enough. Likewise, your freedom to shoot your mouth off may be restricted for, “the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals.” Okay… but… who gets to decide what’s a threat to national security? A national security agency perhaps? Now it starts getting a little muddy; the people who decide what you can and cannot say are the same people with a vested interest in you keeping shtum.

It’s not just governments though. During freshers’ week at the London School of Economics in 2013, as usual, all the different student societies had their stalls out. Unfortunately for the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society, its stallholders wore satirical humorous t-shirts featuring “Jesus and Mo” cartoons (Google it). Student Union officials and security guards promptly ordered them to cover up the t-shirts and remove the atheist books from the stall because they were “offensive”. Despite complying, the stall was then ‘monitored’ by two guards for the rest of the event. There’s now talk of a test case going to the courts. No mention is made of whether the Christian Union stall was deemed “offensive” even though their basic position on atheists is that they will burn in hell.

Noam Chomsky once said, “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like.” It would seem that the LSE Students’ Union (and many others) do not agree. So, to repeat the question: just how free is our speech?


We’re entitled to freedom of speech by law, it’s one of our fundamental human rights, and everyone tells us we have it. Perhaps its most famous expression is in the quote attributed to Voltaire (he never actually said it but don’t let that spoil your appreciation of a beautiful phrase):

“I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it!”

But freedom of speech in practice is often not so simple. Let’s face it… there is no such thing as complete freedom of speech or expression. You can say whatever you want about whomever you want but… there may be consequences (just ask Edward Snowden).

freedom of speech

The question is not whether our freedom of speech is restricted but rather should it be? Unfortunately, quite often the people shouting loudest about their right to speak are the ones saying the most offensive things. When they say “freedom of speech” they really mean “immunity from criticism”. In fact, freedom of speech is all about the right to criticize; the unspoken proviso to Voltaire’s offer to defend someone else’s freedom is the expectation of a similar courtesy. After all, why would you defend to the death the rights of someone who didn’t extend the same rights to you in return?

In the middle of the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill suggested that freedom of speech should only be curtailed in order to prevent harm to others. But when so many of us have been brought up to believe that sticks and stones may break our bones but names can never hurt us, can words ever really cause harm? Well, of course they can: there’s damage to reputation, incitement to commit violence, hate speech, and so on – all potentially harmful in very real ways – and it’s realistic and reasonable to expect a democratically-elected government to protect its citizens from such things.

However, any restriction should be precise and limited, striking a balance between protection and leaving the greatest possible amount of freedom to still be enjoyed. Besides, saying that we’re not allowed to encourage violence against others is a self-evidently fair restriction. Protecting the rights and reputation of other people is a little more difficult to judge. For example, celebrities and politicians are people (I’m told) and perhaps deserve the same rights as the rest of us; on the other hand, they’ve chosen to put their personality and character into the public arena for personal gain and/or profit, so perhaps we should be allowed to comment on their behavior to a greater extent than that of more private individuals.

When it comes to national security and public order, the issues become even murkier. Unless you’re a Star Trek fan then the needs of the many generally outweigh the needs of the few or the one, but… who decides what the needs of the many are? In practice, it’s the government and its law enforcement bodies. However, when somebody blows the whistle on a national government that has been consistently infringing the rights and privacy of not only its own citizens but those of other nations too, should that government be allowed to decide whether that person is entitled to whistle-blow or not?


It’s a fact of life that governments get twitchy over stuff they can’t control. Anybody who runs for office is by definition something of a control freak; they want to be in charge, right? And when it comes to freedom of speech, most governments are in something of a cleft stick. After all, they’ve promised we have it (in a constitution or piece of legislation), so if they want to curtail it they have to be a bit clever about how they go about it.

freedom of speech

Take the Internet as an example; a forum for freedom of expression the world over? But back in 1996, the U.S. Communications Decency Act tried to regulate Internet porn. No dice. The Supreme Court later declared the Act unconstitutional, saying, “Just as the strength of the Internet is chaos, so that strength of our liberty depends upon the chaos and cacophony of the unfettered speech the First Amendment protects.” Woo-hoo! Good news for randy surfers everywhere. However, according to the “Internet enemy list” put together by Reporters without Borders, the following countries are quite happily censoring Internet content, and not just porn: China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

Now maybe in the in the smug West, we can look at that list and tell ourselves that at least we have freedom. But, do we really? There are restrictions and invasions that we don’t even know about. How do we know they exist? Because every now and then one of these restrictions comes to light and we’d be idiots to think it’s an isolated case.

The most infamous recent example is the situation with the NSA and Edward Snowden. The Supreme Court tells the government they can’t restrict our browsing? No problem, the National Security Agency decides the next best thing is to keep an eye on us, monitor what we’re looking at (in case we’re up to something, you know?) and by “us”, I mean all of us, U.S. citizens or not. Turns out the NSA has been keeping an eye on pretty much every phone call in the U.S. and recorded the browsing habits of millions of people worldwide, not to mention chat-room and messaging data, oh yes, and emails. What’s more, agencies in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Sweden, Israel, Italy, Germany (the list goes on) were only too happy to help, along with several global telecommunications companies such as Verizon, British Telecom and Vodafone. Emailed anyone in the U.S.? Browsed a U.S. website? Chances are your details are in the NSA database.

And the reason we know about this is that Edward Snowden leaked about 1.7 million documents to the press proving it. Snowden says he’s exercising his right to freedom of speech and simply wants, “to inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them.” The U.S. disagrees, calls him a dissident, a traitor and a fugitive and he’s currently hiding in Russia. Once again, we’d be fools to think that this extensive spying on the privacy of millions of individuals is an isolated case. Ask yourself, what else is being monitored, restricted?

Finally, while we’re on the subject of the U.S. stance on freedom, let’s not forget FDR’s State of the Union speech in 1941, in which he iterated the Four Freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Oh, how times change…

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