Freedom to express opinions is an essential attribute of the human being. When people are allowed to express themselves they are also given the permission to think for themselves and decide on issues of concern to them. However, freedom of speech must be restricted if this freedom curtails the freedom of others to live peacefully, undisturbed by violence. It is for this reason that governments of societies based on the values of liberty and democracy place restrictions on speech that is hateful, harmful, racist, fascist, or that disturbs national security interests in any way. Then again, laws may or may not be followed. If the dominant political party in a state refuses to allow speech along lines that does not suit its interests, it has the authority to prohibit it. Another state may allow speech along those lines, however.
John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty, had written that there has to be contention between authority and liberty. This paper addresses this contention with descriptions of laws in the United States and Europe that not only allow freedom of expression but also restrict it. The example of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party makes the reasons clear. If Hitler had been stopped from making hateful speech, his dynamism that made a democratic society of his followers would have been meaningless. So, although freedom of speech allows humans to feel free and it is important to debate in order to reach wise decisions, it is also essential to stop speech that hurts the interests of civil society.
Reasonable Limits on Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech happens to be a major issue of contention in societies that are built on the values of liberty and democracy (“Freedom of Speech”). After all, democracy allows all people to raise their voices to change the status quo when they believe they must. But, what if all people desiring to raise their voices to change the status quo have been brainwashed by an evil genius such as the infamous Adolf Hitler? It is for this reason that a philosopher by the name of J. L. Austin has stated that individuals do not only communicate their thoughts with words but are also able to do things with those self same words. As an example, a priest gets people married by pronouncing them man and wife. Likewise, words are capable of inciting hatred, creating a sense of fear, and also instigating violence (Baggini). So, John Stuart Mill, the well-known author of On Liberty expressed that there must always be contention between authority and liberty. He wrote: “All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed—by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law” (Mill as cited in Baggini).
In the United States, it is the First Amendment that allows all Americans to express themselves as they will. But, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes expressed his disagreement in the year 1919 in the following words: “Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical” (Smolla). For this reason, when a high school student put up a banner saying “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” in 2007, the Supreme Court made a ruling that students must have restricted rights to speech when their messages seem to be advocating illegal use of drugs (Yost). Americans have many other rights relevant to liberal societies, however. They may perform the following without restrictions:
Desecrate the national flag as a symbol of protest.
Burn the cross as an expression of racial bigotry and hatred.
Espouse the violent overthrow of the government as long as it is mere abstract
advocacy and not an immediate incitement to violence.
Traffic in sexually explicit erotica as long as it does not meet a rigorous definition of
“hard core” obscenity.
Defame public officials and public figures with falsehoods provided they are not
published with knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.
Disseminate information invading personal privacy if the revelation is deemed “
Engage in countless other forms of expression that would be outlawed in many
nations but are regarded as constitutionally protected here. (Smolla)
Unfortunately, though, there are no hard and fast rules as far as laws are concerned. Judicial activism remains a reality, and if a minority group confronting racism indulges in any of the above mentioned liberal acts, group members may be punished depending on decisions made by courts and the judges concerned. It is for this reason that Samples mentions the interference of politics with regards to limits on freedom of speech. According to the author, limits to this freedom in a state of America depend on the dominant political party and politicians in that state. He writes:
In 2004, Wisconsin Right to Life, a pro-life organization, produced several
television ads appealing to Wisconsin residents to ask their senators not to filibuster
President Bush’s judicial nominees. One of those senators, Russell Feingold, was
running for re-election in 2004, which meant—under the McCain-Feingold law, co-
sponsored by Feingold himself—that airing the ads would have been illegal.
The same year, the ACLU sponsored radio ads opposing parts of a homeland
security bill that affected immigrants. If those ads had been run in Wisconsin and had
mentioned Feingold, they too would have been illegal. (Samples)
Of course, politicians and judges cannot be expected to express perfect opinions or make immaculate decisions at all times. There are general guidelines about limits to freedom of speech nevertheless. If, for example, somebody’s speech is dangerous and capable of disturbing civil society, the state has the right to curb it. Similarly, words of violence must be curbed before they lead to acts of violence. Slanderous statements and libel, that is, misleading information about others may also be curbed by laws of the land. Obscene or indecent speech is also prohibited by law. When speech conflicts with genuine interests of society as well as government, the latter has the right to intervene and put an end to words that it considers harmful. What is more, the law recognizes that there are times and places where speech cannot be free. For instance, if somebody stops traffic to disseminate information he or she must be stopped by law enforcement personnel (“Limits of Freedom of Speech”).
According to Donna Guthrie, a British campaigner for a group that struggles against fascism, speech must be controlled in order to be described as free. She states that there are terrible consequences of allowing a racist or fascist organization to speak freely. Thus, racist attacks with the use of words must be strictly controlled before they lead to acts of slaughter in the name of race, as in the case of Nazism. She uses the example of David Irving, a public speaker, historian, and denier of the Holocaust, stating that he must not be allowed to freely address the people because his views are dangerous (Joyce).
The European Convention on Human Rights like the First Amendment of the United States also grants freedom of speech to all parties to the Convention. However, it adds that parties to the Convention, that is European governments, may restrict this freedom whenever national security is endangered by free speech. Although this rule makes perfect sense, the editor of Spiked, the website that propounds anti-censorship, believes that all people should be allowed to express their opinions regardless of national security concerns because depriving people of the right to free speech is to make them feel that they cannot really think for themselves, and that, in fact, they do not have an innate sense of morality. The editor also believes that it is impossible to incite all people to violence. Thus, even if somebody makes hateful speech it should be allowed so that it can be challenged. Unless there is clear danger, violent speech must not be restricted (Joyce).
As may be expected, there are those that challenge the editor’s opinion as outlined above. These individuals assert that it is possible to save lives by restricting speech. If Hitler and his party had not been given free rein as far as speech was concerned, it would have been possible for the lives of the millions of Jews they butchered to have been saved (Joyce). After all, Hitler had convinced plenty of people that he was correct in his opinions. He was a dynamic speaker. The great number of people who supported him had shown the spirit of democracy in action by working hand in hand to destroy millions of Jews.
Although both sides of the debate are sensible enough to be given further thought, the example of Hitler clarifies the issue of contention. Restrictions to freedom of speech are essential because all people, regardless of whether they end up taking up important political offices or becoming political writers, cannot be expected to have the best interests of society and government at heart. Negative politics is a reality. Corruption may become a norm if it is unchecked. Likewise, our world has witnessed that racism and fascism have the tendency to destroy countless lives. Then again, some form of dissent must be permitted so as to allow critical thinkers to reach important decisions. If the African Americans had not revolted when the white citizens of America confronted them with racist insults day in day out, the majority of people of the United States may have continued to hate people because of their skin color. Thus, freedom of speech is valuable when it comes to changing norms that do not really fit the description of civil societies. Of course, there are plenty of issues that need to be resolved even today, both within and outside the United States. If people do not speak up, governments may never hear them. It is for these reasons that freedom of speech is considered both unrestricted and restricted in the world we live.
Baggini, Julian. “Freedom of Speech (with Limits).” BBC News. 15 Jan 2004. 1 Feb 2009.
“Freedom of Speech.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 Apr 2008. 1 Feb 2009.
Joyce, Julian. “The Limits to Freedom of Speech.” BBC News. 26 Nov 2007. 1 Feb 2009.
“Limits of Freedom of Speech.” Education for Freedom. 1 Feb 2009.
Samples, John. “Freedom of Speech, Except When It Matters.” CATO Institute. 16 Aug 2006. 1
Feb 2009. ;http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=6627;.
Smolla, Rodney. “Speech.” First Amendment Center. 1 Feb 2009.
Yost, Pete. “Court Limits Student Free-Speech Rights.” The Huffington Post. 25 Jun 2007. 1 Feb