Can Free Speech Threaten Democracy?

Nate Fialkoff
Jan 13, 2019 · 5 min read

Democracy was founded with the single blazing ideal of freedom to the people; everything else — prevention from harm, justice and mercy, and even human rights — has followed as a related second thought. America’s obsession with freedom began from its very birth. The founding fathers wanted to create a system of government that would prevent the rise of tyranny, from some future version of a colonial power limiting the powers of people in order to consolidate their own power. Essentially, that’s how a dictatorship works — by limiting people’s freedom to assemble, to speak out against the leadership, and instilling a fear so deep that retaliation would end in suffering — the tyrant flourishes through that kind of submission. The founders of democracy realized that the one freedom that seemed paramount to preventing tyranny was the freedom of speech — if you can speak out against unjust rulership or government, then you can change the government to be more fair. Theoretically speaking, freedom of speech is one of the greatest preventions from allowing a government to become too powerful, and therefore, has been one of the most prized ideals in any democracy.

So what did people want the freedom to say? They wanted to peacefully assemble for an important cause, they wanted to speak out against unjust laws or systems, they wanted, basically, to use their voices as a means of improving a democratic government. In the Federalist papers, a particularly interesting idea of factions is supported. In a democracy, there are many people who won’t agree on a particular issue, and they’ll split into different groups based on what they support. Each group will voice their beliefs using the freedom of speech, but no one group can overpower another. Hence, free speech here again works as a prevention against tyranny.

As we’ve moved on from the lofty yet rudimentary principles which democracy was founded on, we’ve run across a lot of problems. Free speech nowadays is not simply a prevention against tyranny. Usually, people don’t really even think about the threat of an over powerful government when they declare their right to free speech. Now, when people invoke their freedom of speech, they mean the ability to say whatever they please individually, not as an exercise against tyranny.

Consider, for example, this advertisement in a London train station that was criticized for sending bad messages about body image:

This poster met a lot of outrage for being harmful to women’s body image and generally decreasing the moral value of society. The marketing agency that created this advertisement appealed to their freedom of speech. So far, we’ve defined the freedom of speech as a way to prevent government from getting too powerful and suppressing the freedoms of the people. It’s obvious to see that the company that created this ad isn’t doing it to prevent tyranny. They’re doing it for much more individual purposes — they want to sell a product. The principles of free speech are much messier when bringing in individual motivations against another individual’s rights, or the wellbeing of society.

The priority of this company is to sell a product by (as the argument goes) exploiting expectations placed on women’s body image, and the priority of another group may be the healthy expression of women’s body image. There’s a fundamentally moral disagreement at heart here — is it wrong to depict this in an ad, or does the company’s freedom to say it outweigh its possible moral consequences?

For a good portion of American history, companies and individuals and groups have appealed to free speech as a way to escape the consequences of the possible harm that what they say can inflict upon others and further their own self-interest. Even more — and this seems to be the most important part — is that many who ardently support unregulated free speech argue that if they were unable to express all of their beliefs, it would be a direct threat to democracy itself. Why? Because the government is taping a part of their mouths shut, telling them what they can and cannot say, and if they can’t put up a poster that says “are you beach body ready” or say a simple racist or sexist or homophobic joke, then what else can the government take away from them?

This war between appealing to the dangers of government regulation and the possibly harmful consequences of speech has a solution that is often ignored by proponents of the former: freedoms end where rights begin. The rights of women and the freedom of speech of a corporation seem to be at stake in the advertisement — surely there is a line between the two. Surely, the company’s freedom of speech doesn’t indefinitely go on forever, trampling over anything in its wake, and surely, there must be other factors to take into account. The line between freedoms and rights is perhaps the most difficult to draw, but I’m arguing that there is a line. The argument that limiting one form of free speech leads to an indefinite limitation on free speech isn’t true.

It seems at a cursory glance that it is a logical fallacy to limit freedom. How can we limit or regulate something that is by its very nature the resistance to limitation? Limiting freedom seems to be a paradox, a flaw in logic. However, this is met with an even greater logical and practical problem: how can everyone express their freedoms indefinitely without stepping on someone else’s freedom, or right? If I want to voice a particular opinion, it may run up against someone else’s rights, as it possibly does with the advertisement above. It seems that if the freedom of speech is just a society of individuals saying what they want as loudly as possibly, voices stepping over the others with no regard or respect for the rights of other individuals, it doesn’t seem like an image of democracy so much as it is an anarchy.

Though the freedom of speech is what prevents a democracy from disintegrating into tyranny, it is the regulation of free speech that prevents it from disintegrating into anarchy. A democracy needs to balance the freedoms and rights of its citizens in order to create a society where each individual can express their beliefs but also respect those of others. Finding the line between freedoms and rights is particularly difficult, and it will require a great deal of philosophical and political thought, but I just want to show that that line exists and that drawing it well is the backbone of a democratic system. The argument that regulated free speech threatens democracy overlooks that ignoring the rights of individuals and groups endangered by possibly harmful speech is also a threat to democracy as well. A balance between freedoms and rights must be struck, the line must be drawn, in order to create a more just, equitable, and balanced society.

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