What is freedom of speech?
Freedom of speech is the freedom to profess any idea without fear of being prosecuted or unduly punished for it. It is a direct protection that all people have from government and those in power. This is one of the most essential elements of a free and democratic society. In order for the public discourse to produce the best policies, all ideas must be allowed to be heard.
Not only does freedom of speech include the freedom for individuals to speak their minds, but also it includes the right for others to hear them. You have a right to consume any information you wish (with very few exceptions) so that you can make the most informed decisions relevant to your life. No person or group should be able to decide for you.
They say that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’. This is precisely why bad ideas must be heard: so that we know why they are bad.
Despite this freedom being one of the most important, it is not an absolute right. We have limitations to rights in order to operate in society. There are several categories of speech that are not included in free speech:
a direct incitement of violence
defamation (libel and slander)
a solicitation to commit a crime
manifestation of violence as a means of conveying a message
These categories are excluded from freedom of speech because they either cause direct, intentional harm to individuals, unjustly damage an individual’s reputation, interfere with the natural course of justice, or incite violence or illegal activity by others. Our legal system has developed a thorough way to define these categories fairly. It is through a series of established tests that the criteria for each of these are met.
These categories that are not free speech are, for the most part, ex post (meaning after the fact). This means that these acts of speech have been made in the past and are subject to punishment under the law because they were prohibited by law.
Censorship of a future speaker is ex ante (meaning before the fact). To prohibit this speech would rely on harm done in the hypothetical. If we allow freedom of speech exceptions to deal with hypothetical harm, people in power can justify serious limitations to free speech on what can be said is sheer potentiality of harm.
“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.” – John Stewart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter II: Of Liberty of Thought and Discussion
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” – George Orwell
“Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.” – Noam Chomsky
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" – Evelyn Beatrice Hall in The Friends of Voltaire
Was this helpful?
You might also like: