Jul 14, 2020 in Research

How Free Should Speech Be?

Freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental parts of human rights which forms the basis of any civilized society. A person has the right to express their position regardless of social status, race, gender, or other factors because it also defines the right to be equal in society. Besides, freedom of speech is inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, this human right is not evident for many political regimes. Thus, authorities or politicians regulate it in accordance with ideological principles. The conservators believe that freedom of expression could threaten national security and general order achieved over the years. Conversely, liberal theorists do not see any need to restrict freedom of speech, although they propose to set some other mechanisms of control informally. This paper deals with the idea that freedom of speech as the method of ensuring truth and human rights should exist in every democratic society with reasonable limitations, particularly concerning national security. 

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Freedom of speech is closely connected with the issues of truth, government, political system flexibility, and realization of natural rights. Historically, freedom of speech has developed as an instrument for awareness and a method for maintaining competence in the political public sphere. For instance, the British version of the Bill of Rights granted full freedom to discuss questions concerning Parliament and the United Kingdom officials. Thus, freedom of speech was an instrument of criticism and public regulation processes for ensuring social compromise. However, many authoritarian regimes still value this property leaving small and safe areas of freedom for its stability. Such regimes do this for receiving objective information about the real situation on its territory and beyond. For example, this method is realized with the help of small-circulation newspapers, which are devoid of censorship. In other words, for the authoritarian regimes, freedom of speech is a practical method of obtaining the truth as a result of different facts, both subjective and objective.

According to the democratic principles, the most important feature of freedom is spreading such information that may influence the outcome of elections or the work of the government. Many liberal thinkers since Rousseau emphasized the importance of learning the culture of free speech. In their view, discussions about establishing the truth and tolerance of alternative ideas contribute to progress and harmony in society. Freedom of speech along with democratic procedures ensures that the government is accountable to the voters. Accordingly, it is one of the most important tools of protection of human rights: “Civil liberties have to do, most of the time, with protections of the individual from the government”. As Karl Popper suggests, freedom of speech is also important for ensuring the stability of liberal democracy because it allows the adjustment of the government and even the entire political system to societal needs. However, the legislative restrictions are minor in most modern liberal democracies, and they are introduced only during the election campaigns. 

Furthermore, media should clearly understand that it influences elections and thus is responsible for its impact. In fact, many media abuse freedom of speech and often penetrate the private sphere. Today, this problem is one of the most complicated in the press because democratic societies cannot divide the public from the private. Therefore, freedom of speech becomes a hidden method of manipulation abusing democratic values in accordance with political motives. In this case, people should receive correct information before elections and have access to different points of view. This fact primarily refers to voter information sources in the modern society, such as television and the Internet. It provides access to a wide range of uncensored and independent sources. Furthermore, it also raises the problem of abusive content that many people want to ban. Otherwise, it postulates policy pluralism in the media, which have a monopoly and authority. Offensive content is not fundamental or permanent, but it is only a part of culture. Mill believes that these beliefs unexamined whither and die (Mill), and thus freedom of speech means freedom to express different attitudes. Nevertheless, it can lead to destructive processes, particularly in the context of mass crimes.  

Freedom of speech must be partly controlled because it can turn society into anarchy, and there are two cases of limitation: prevention of mass crimes and ensuring national security. The former presupposes prevention of deliberate promotion of ideas that can lead to the destruction of civil society. It can be an impulse toward collective violence and mass disturbances. In such conditions, freedom of speech is a powerful tool of destruction of democratic institutions. It can disrupt social order and lead to a situation of permanent instability. In fact, every democracy has minor adjustments on the matter. On the other hand, single riots can result in an actual revolution. For example, the French Revolution started with a mere call for the overthrow of the regime. Moreover, modern totalitarian regimes establish control over freedom of speech because it can annihilate their power. In this case, Mackinnon warns that “restricting speech is seen to be tempting, to have a seductive power that draws governments to its totalitarian – also regarded as principled – logic”. Therefore, the state must be cautious in the matter concerning liberal proposition and authoritarian control.

Another reason for controlling freedom of speech may be a case where the information could jeopardize national security. Freedom of speech cannot only lead to compromising solutions but also can destroy national security. For example, in every state, there is secret information to which access should be restricted. With the freedom of expression, journalists are entitled to this information, but there is no guarantee that it will not fall into the hands of terrorists. Moreover, it is a chance to blackmail the country and then to demand other significant information. It is a very acute problem of responsibility for the abuse of freedom of speech because words can elevate a person and destroy them in the public eye as well. In the countries of the European Union, restrictions of freedom are allowed only in case of a pressing social need and absolute certainty that it will not lead to negative consequences. Most of the democratic countries have the similar warnings in almost all fundamental laws. For example, the Italian Constitution warns against and prohibits distributing works and anything else contrary to morality. At the same time, Weckert does not see a problem, because people often may miss such content. Anyone can ignore some sites in order to not be offended, and “there seems to be no good reason why they should be banned”. In fact, it is not a fluid conviction as Mill suggests, but a real fact of discrimination, especially in the context of pornography. It is not about a total ban, but rather a limitation of access, but today it does not work when controversial information always has its user.

In the developed democracies, many laws and regulations protect citizens from abuse of freedom of speech. At the same time, these measures do not limit that freedom. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, the principle of democracy provides that in the exercise of rights and freedoms, everyone may be limited only by rules and laws for the purpose of security. It is also important to tolerate the rights and freedoms of other people, especially in the context of minorities. Besides, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights declares the right to free expression of any opinion, but it also reserves special duties and responsibilities. Thus, the relationship between freedom of speech and society is balanced while freedom of speech and other rights will not be violated. Therefore, it should be restricted to the extent when it does not violate the rights of an individual. Otherwise, it can transform into discrimination or any other type of social violence.

In conclusion, freedom of speech is one of the greatest achievements of democracy. In fact, it ensures pluralism of opinions and opportunities. From the cultural point of view, freedom of speech is committed to the independent development of society providing an opportunity to form someone’s standards and beliefs autonomously. On the other hand, people should use it wisely and for the benefit of society. The limitations to freedom of speech should be only imposed as a regulator that delineates the social rights of different people. Thus, they will not just be free to discuss all social issues but also be able to use it to make a balanced choice. However, politicians should not use this control for unnecessary actions but only in the most extreme situations. Therefore, the restriction of freedom of speech is not something negative but rather a necessary method for preserving the integrity of society and national security.


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