Free(ing) Speech; or How to Speak & Listen
Free speech — like this — is far from free.
Written for & edited @AfterSkool: Get educated!
Free speech is the freest it’s ever been.
So free, in fact, this is likely the most I’ve ever used the letter ‘e’.
Civil discourse, commonly known as the open exchange of ideas, comes at the cost of valuing self-expression, subjectivity, and — hopefully — radical tolerance. Not just from an individual’s perspective, but from the world at large and the democratic governments in which they live.
Freedom of expression is a uniquely humanitarian principle that supports the freedoms of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or unlawful sanction.
Yet freedom of speech has recently shifted in societal interpretations, particularly the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution that’s enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
Ratified December 15, 1791, the 1st Amendment prevents Congress from making any law prohibiting the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech in public press & print, the right to peaceably assemble, or the ability to petition for a governmental redress of grievances.
Globally, freedom of expression & speech is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (or UDHR). Article 19 of the UDHR states “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
The exercise of these rights, as Article 19 states further, carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “for respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “for the protection of national security or or of public health.”
Therefore, freedom of speech may not be particularly recognized as being absolute or unconditional. Current limitations to freedom of speech relate to libel, slander, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, food labeling, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy, and threatening public security.
But the last item — threatening public security— is vague, which only establishes a spectrum of subjective opinion of what constitutes a threat, or more specifically, a threat yet to manifest itself from words into enacted violence. Yet how can we have violence when we’re not, definitively speaking, being violent?
With the evolution of the digital age, application of the freedom of speech becomes more controversial as new means of communication and restrictions arise. Jo Glanville, editor of the Index on Censorship, believes “the Internet has been a revolution for censorship as much as for free speech.”
Historically, freedom of speech has had a contentious relationship with international human rights, and has shifted continuously amongst different sociopolitical systems. Rather than be in unanimous agreement, we must look to our origins & history.
The ancient Athenian democratic principle of free speech may have emerged in the late 6th or early 5th century BC. The values then evolved through the Roman Republic, which included freedom of speech along with freedom of religion. England’s refined Bill of Rights of 1689 would extend free expression to government, which legally established the constitutional right of ‘freedom of speech in Parliament’ that is still in effect today.
Under Stalinist rule and overarching Communism, the philosopher Karl Popper said that “free societies have the right to protect themselves by suppressing enemies of freedom.” Yet the radical Marxist philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, identified what are modern militarists & capitalists today as anti-Communists whom are “the enemies of freedom who ought to be suppressed.”
Then when and how do we justify one person’s opinion over the other, especially if we all can’t agree?
The harm principle, proposed in 1989’s On Liberty essay written by John Stuart Mill may reveal a solution, suggesting “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others…or 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.”
Based on Milton’s arguments, freedom of speech is better understood as a multi-faceted right that includes not only the freedom to express, or disseminate information and ideas, but three further distinct aspects broken down as:
1. the right to SEEK information and ideas;
2. the right to RECEIVE information and ideas;
3. the right to IMPART information and ideas.
Mill argues this as well, agreeing that the fullest liberty of expression is required to push arguments to their logical limits.
But then what distinguishes free speech from hate speech? How far is too far? What is deemed ‘hateful’?
Hate speech, as definable term or offensible action, in the United States is comparatively unregulated when compared to that of most other liberal democracies. Perhaps, it’s because a universal consensus on ‘hate speech' doesn’t exist, making it even harder to define specifically. However most countries are oddly more aggressive about policing hate speech. And it’s not only those nations commonly associated with extremely restricted expression, say like governments in the Middle East or akin to North Korea’s dictatorship.
Everyone may not have a hand over their mouth, but almost everyone has their grasp on the mic & keyboard…and now many want control of the internet.
In China, an initiative by the government’s Ministry of Public Security called the Golden Shield Project now filters potentially unfavorable data from foreign countries. Known as the “Great Firewall of China”, the system blocks content by preventing certain IP addresses.
And in my own neighbor to the north, Canada views advocating genocide against any “identifiable group” as an indictable offence under their recently passed C16 Bill or it’s official name: An Act to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code (which is relatively fair). The law passed by the Canadian Parliament adds recent gender expression and gender identity as protected grounds to the Canadian Human Rights Act, and also to the Criminal Code provisions dealing with hate propaganda, incitement to genocide, and aggravating factors in sentencing. The bill is intended to protect individuals from discrimination within the sphere of federal jurisdiction and from being the targets of hate propaganda.
Yet staunch opponents like Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist & Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, criticized the bill, claiming that it infringed freedom of speech in its totality.
In 2016, Ben Shapiro, an equally outspoken Jewish author, lawyer, and sociopolitical commentator was banned from speaking at DePaul University because of the pressures of a campus minority threatening to disrupt the event.
Despite if one agrees with their respective points of view, most would concede mob mentalities should never govern or impede freedom of speech without any evidence of potential violence. It completely undermines the judicial system we’ve spent centuries building, as well as erodes educational institutions as an intended forum for the exchange and criticism of all ideas…from the worst to the best.
A free society depends on the open exchange of ideas, regardless of their potential capability of offending someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused great religious offence in their time.
The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment alone were turbulent periods of upending our traditional perspectives of religion, including our place in the universe. Astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus faced fierce resistance from ecclesiastical authority when he discovered the Earth revolves around the Sun.
Without that exchange of ideas, our current understanding of the world would be unrecognizable and entirely false. Everything we know about the world — from the age of our civilization and species to the laws that govern energy and the complex workings of the body & brain — has come into being first by free speech, nurtured by the interexchange of ideas, and curated into our collective knowledge if deemed worthwhile.
But free speech or hate speech should never come at the expense of human life. Freedom of speech is what both makes up and defines our social contract; it enables people of radically different opinions to live together without violence.
With examples abound, we’ve seen how the debate over the freedom of expression can escalate to tragedy. Look no further than the recent deadly attacks at the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine which released a front cover showing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohamed. The magazine has been the target of two terrorist attacks, in 2011 and 2015. Both were presumed to be in response to a number of controversial Muhammad cartoons it published.
In the second of these attacks, On January 7th 2015, two extremist, Islamist gunmen forced their way into the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo and opened fire. 12 people were killed, including the publishing director and several other prominent cartoonists.
Because of words and pictures…dead.
While we may debate the ethical & morale limits of religious satire, the best way to uphold tolerance is to uphold equal speech for all, not to define new categories of reasoning to persecute innocent people. This is why the Supreme Court unanimously reaffirms that there is no ‘hate speech’ exception to the First Amendment.
Supreme Justice, Samuel Alito explains: “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate’.”
Hate and the ‘thought of hate’ are two separate distinctions we must acknowledge. While we are constantly haunted by the memory of violence and its potential, we must not be fearful slaves to safe spaces. Good ideas, let alone great ideas can never thrive in a vaccum. Personally, it is hard to imagine any form of free expression meriting the ire of the public. Nor should it be.
We are freer to think today than in the past. We can bare the secrets of government as easily as the secrets of the bedroom. We can denounce our rulers, and each other, with little fear of the consequences. There is almost no chance that a court will stop us from publishing what we wish: in print, on air, or on the internet.
Because in reality, we’re not settling our disagreement by arm-wrestling or a beauty contest or with a pistol duel. We’re freeing speech between you and I, and for humanity at large that constantly elevates, challenges, and innovates new ideas.
Freedom of expression, at its core, is a fundamental human right that reinforces all other human rights, allowing society to develop and progress naturally.
However, free speech does not mean giving bigots a free pass. It includes the right and moral imperative to challenge, oppose, and protest bigoted views. And as history’s shown, bad ideas are most often defeated by good ideas — backed up by ethics & reason rather than by bans and censorship.
Free speech does have limits though and we seem to discover more everyday, deciding which lines to tow and which ones to push further. And if you object to these arguments — if you want to expose flaws in my logic or a lapse in historical accuracy — it’s the right of free speech that allows you to do so.
Words matter. Some words hurt. But we know this about free speech:
Discourse is all we ever truly have control of…whether it’s coarse or fine. So let’s never be afraid to talk about — well, anything.
Thanks for listening…
And remember: Control the Words, Control the Culture. | PragerU