Free Speech 2: What Is Free Speech and Why is it Good?

Free Speech 2: What Is Free Speech and Why is it Good? March 26, 2016

This is the second post in a series exploring the concept of free speech and its relationship to political protest, particularly relevant to recent discussions regarding the disruption by protesters of Donald Trump rallies. First post here.

What Does the Right to Free Speech Entail?

The right to freedom of speech is an idea about certain freedoms people should enjoy in the area of speech. It is an ethical claim about how people should and should not be treated when we seek to speak our minds, and a statement regarding the powers we should be able to exercise when it comes to communication.

What are these freedoms and powers? The 19th Article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the most well-known statement of rights in history) expresses the idea as follows:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This is broad and inspiring, but not very specific. So to enumerate further, I think freedom of speech must include:

  • The freedom to express ourselves, through speech, writing, or other symbolic means (such as painting, music, dress etc.).
  • The freedom to explore our ideas with other people.
  • The freedom to advance unpopular ideas, including ideas others might find offensive or even dangerous, including in the political and religious realms.
  • The freedom to criticize our government without reprimand from that government.
  • The freedom to criticize other people – their beliefs, actions, and character, even in strenuous and personal terms – without fear of violence or extreme stigmatization in retaliation.

These rights, it must be stressed, are quite likely broader than any particular legal protection of them, and can be limited by the action of governments, private citizens, corporations, and other groups. When those who support certain limitations on speech claim, as I note they do increasingly, that one’s right to free speech is only infringed if the government is the agent of limitation, they are in my judgment making an error: one’s right to free speech can be infringed by non-governmental agents as well. An unruly mob who threatens you with violence if you finish writing your treatise is infringing on your ethical right to a certain sort of treatment, just as is a government agency which threatens you with imprisonment for the same activity. Frequently in human history private citizens and non-state groups have been a more proximate and more dangerous threat to the freedoms just listed than has the government: think of religious authorities shutting down dissenting religious opinions, and private citizens acting to suppress political views they find distasteful. Patheos colleague Kaveh Mousavi has written convincingly about this here.

[Note: I make no judgment here as to whether these critics are correct in their view that the speech they abhor should be limited: they could well be right about this, but I maintain it is wrong to justify that position by appeal to the idea that free speech rights can only be infringed by the state.]

Free speech rights must, of course, be balanced with other rights. Speech can be used to harm others, and sometimes the harm a given speech act would cause outweighs one’s right to perform said act. This is not uncontroversial: all governments as a matter of fact limit speech in some ways, and this is consistent with the understanding of free speech as a collection of desirable liberties I have so far outlined. When the enjoyment of a liberty by one individual infringes upon the enjoyment of the same or a different liberty by another some accommodation must be found, and the accommodation will frequently involve some limitation on the enjoyment of a liberty. The difficulty of balancing free speech rights with other rights, and the free speech rights of one with the free speech rights of another, is a significant source of disagreement in philosophical and activist circles.

Why is a Right to Free Speech Good?

This may seem a silly question, but it is essential. What is good about freedom of speech? Why are we justified in making the ethical claim that people should be treated in such a way as to afford them the freedoms listed above? By making such a claim we place a burden of responsibility on ourselves, on others, and on our government to respect and promote these freedoms, and that burden requires justification through an appeal to the goods that imposing such a burden will bring forth. The goods free speech brings can broadly be understood as both individual and social: promoting a right of free speech tends, I argue, to benefit both individuals and the societies in which they live in ways which significantly enhance human welfare, justifying its position as a “right”.

Individual Benefits of Freedom of Speech

  • People derive pleasure from communication itself. Speaking our mind is itself an inherently pleasurable activity for many. When people are prevented from communicating with others they suffer psychologically.
  • Communication is a primary route to learning and growth. Sharing ideas with others helps us improve our ideas and thus improve our lives. Being prevented from discussing certain topics with other people stunts our development.
  • Our identity is frequently significantly enhanced and developed through our speech. Our speech is to some degree an expression of who we are as a person, and to limit speech is to limit our opportunities to express who we are. In some cases, exploring our identity through speech acts is part of what helps us understand and shape our own identity, so restrictions on speech can be quite damaging to individuals and our sense of self.
  • Certain other freedoms are dependent, at least to some extent, on free speech. Without the freedom to express one’s convictions one’s religious freedom is severely curtailed, for instance.

Social Benefits of Freedom of Speech

  • Freedom of speech enables democratic governance. Without the ability to campaign openly on behalf of one’s political beliefs, a vibrant democracy is impossible.
  • Freedom of speech protects against tyranny by ensuring people can criticize their government. Frequently, one of the first freedoms a totalitarian government seeks to limit is freedom to criticize itself: this is a recognition that freedom to criticize the state does indeed help keep the state’s power in check.
  • Freedom of speech helps facilitate social progress through the exchange of ideas. In a society in which freedom of speech is respected, new ideas can be disseminated without fear, and old ideas criticized. In theory, the best ideas – those most conducive to human welfare – should win out, and thus society is improved. There is significant evidence from history that this process does indeed occur, and that limitations on speech can slow it down or prevent it.
  • Freedom of speech keeps cultures vibrant through the possibility of artistic creation and exchange. Our personal and social lives are enriched when we have the opportunity to encounter a wide variety of cultural artifacts, and this is more difficult when particular artworks, art forms, artists etc. are prevented from practicing their art through limitations on speech.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the goods which can flow from a society in which free speech rights are protected, but I think it is a defensible account of some of the benefits of recognizing a free speech right, and I believe that these goods are sufficient reason to protect and promote freedoms related to speech. We therefore establish laws (such as constitutional protections) which seek to protect the freedoms listed above in order to receive the goods just discussed: the laws protect the freedoms which give rise to the goods.
Having established the nature and value of freedom of speech, we are now better placed to make judgments as to whether particular activities promote those freedoms or restrict them, and give rise to the goods those freedoms promote or inhibit their fruition. This is important because some activities, while undertaken in the name of free speech, could undermine the exercise of free speech freedoms, or fail to promote the goods those freedoms are meant to promote. We will explore this problem more in the next post in the series!

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