What free speech is
Free speech or freedom of speech can be defined as the right to express oneself without censorship. In procedural or evolutional terms, it can be taken to mean the end of repression and the beginning of expression.
Conceptualization and Codification
When a baby is born it signals its entry into to the world with a cry. Free speech is, therefore, a natural right. But its conceptualization can be traced by to Greek philosophers like Socrates who was persecuted in 399 BC for arguing that it should be promoted. Its codification can also be traced to the 1215 Magna Carta. Many court cases have come up in the U.S on the question of free speech. These cases, like the Schenck V United State in 1919, Brandenburg V Ohio in 1969, etc have often ended with judgements that uphold this basic human right.
Many people often posit that free speech is a right to uphold but there are widespread disagreements as to what it stands for. The debate arises from the very concept itself that is composed of two words that have two different meanings that are important in human life. The words “free” and “speech” are important in every society. For example, speech does not only mean verbal communication but can also be expressed through photographs, motion pictures and written text which is supposed to be free in one way or the other to express human feelings. But to what extent can such forms of speech can be considered free.
Content and materialization
In the United States of America (USA) like elsewhere, freedom of speech excludes every form of expression that is harmful to the physical integrity of others and to private property, or that conveys messages that are offensive or of a racial nature. Free speech is therefore materialized when people are allowed to say whatever they like to say whenever they like to say and wherever they would like to say what they have to say as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.
A set of rights and obligations
Our natural human and democratic rights are without doubt inalienable. They, therefore, figure at the summit of all rights and are fully granted without the kinds of obligations that come with all other kinds of civic and political rights. However, this is only a matter of proportions as the natural law of “to every right comes an obligation” applies. This means that Freedom of speech comes with responsibilities and can, therefore, be restricted. Any restriction on free speech may be put in law and well explained so that people can understand them.
Rationale for restrictions
Speech can be restricted to prevent harm to other people. In this situation, harm is seen as the violation of a person’s right. Therefore, speech can be restricted when it unambiguously incites violence, threat, fraud, and others. Harm in speech restriction is mostly misunderstood by many people. For instance, if a speech causes a political candidate to lose a vote, that does not give reason for restricting that speech because the harm is not the direct result of that speech but people’s understanding and reaction to the message transmitted. Also, the type of harm in question must not be subject to the subjective interpretations of a few.
Types of restrictions: censorship and free speech
The concept of censorship is tightly attached to that of free speech and it goes with what kinds of restrictions are applied and who implements these restrictions. In some societies, people have been banned from talking in public places due to remarks they have made which are unacceptable or can stir up trouble. Some people tend to see censorship as a violation of free speech while others say it is a question of government restriction. But that is exactly where the problem lies. Some governments exercise censorship in order to prevent people from expressing dissident opinions often on the pretext that these views are extremist. A close inspection shows that governments that are akin to such practices aim at preserving power. Government should be barred from censoring speech, period!
Censorship from within the populace itself
John Stuart Mill a British philosopher argued that:
“that the chief threat to free speech in democracies was not the state, but the “social tyranny” of one’s fellow citizens. And yet today, the civil libertarians who style themselves as Mill’s inheritors have for the most part failed to refute, or even address, the arguments about free speech and equality that their opponents are making”.
He goes ahead to say that
“…the influence of social pressure and disapprobrium can sometimes be a very powerful means of shutting down legitimate discussion and suppressing or marginalizing minority points of view. Furthermore, an abstract right to freedom of speech does little good if one cannot find a venue to speak or printer to publish one’s ideas. If we think that freedom of speech is in general something that is valuable, therefore, it seems reasonable that we would regard both private and government restrictions on such freedom as at least potentially worthy of concern. It does not follow, of course, that we should have the same standards or criteria for determining the circumstances in which it is appropriate for each party to infringe on such freedoms. We may, for instance, think it inappropriate for a university to refuse to host a speaker merely because they disagree with the stance of that speaker and find his views objectionable. However, if that same speaker has engaged in discriminatory and demeaning speech directed at certain minority groups, we may think it justified for the same university to refuse them a platform, even if we do not regard the harm done by this speech as sufficient or direct enough to warrant government restriction of that speech”.
Free speech and the type of political system
Whether a dictatorship or a democracy, free speech is an inevitable positive fatality! Democracy is not limited to a government by the majority. It is equally a government in which the voting rights of the electorate are conveyed through freedom of speech. If free speech is not institutionalized, codified and frameworks set in place for the populace to be guaranteed the freedom to air their views without fear of the police, then democracy might become a one-day affair during which people vote on the election day and then for the next few years (2-7 in general) are subjugated to the dictatorship of the ruling party.
Freedom of speech allows people to express their concerns, raise their voice and disapprove government policy, thus allowing people to indirectly rule the nation. But if the government threatens people when they challenge its policies and there is a blatant failure to protect the right to freedom of speech, then democracy has simply collapsed. Here, the government is finally a dictatorship, even if that government was chosen through elections.
Freedom of speech is seen to be an important part of democracy as it protects the minority rights to partake in politics and decision-making. Freedom of speech ensures that the tyranny of the majority is put to check. The government elected by the majority often claims to be working for all, including the minority but would certainly not give the right to the same minority or even to members of the majority to air their views if freedom of speech is not tightly protected. For fairness, there must be equality of political participation and there must be equality before the law. Free speech is the only guarantee for the average citizens to enjoy both rights.