Is Freedom of Speech Dying?
A Short Investigation
The history of freedom of speech in the west seemingly begins properly in the radical enlightenment movement in which we see a huge interest in the idea of full freedom of expression. In comparison to Voltaire and other more moderate enlightenment philosophers, the radical enlightenment focuses on ‘the entire truth of what is known to men should be expressed so as to be accessible and available to all.’ Israel, J.I. (2011). The argument is that this is a very extreme form of freedom of speech which seems to have a disregard for consequence, which is against of what freedom of speech actually stands for and J.I Israel argues in the chapter. Moderate enlightenment however, seeks to understand the rights and responsibilities on both sides of freedom of speech, but for its moderate nature is still at risk of leading towards censorship. The challenge is to meet the line between the moderate and the radical in order to respect the ideas, seek to facilitate the ideas with platform and critique those ideas without censorship. In the modern day, many have analysed how the idea of freedom of speech is moving backwards in which freedom of speech is becoming censored to the point where entire arguments have been shut down from Internet services and critical accounts on social media have been suspended with the people themselves being ‘cancelled’ in a culture which promotes this behaviour.
The historical problem with freedom of speech is also in truthfulness. The question of whether freedom of speech should be truthful is more important in our own day than ever especially in the last five years. It is said that ‘truth is discovered through its competition with falsehood’ ( which is aptly followed by whether we can really trust the truth as the winner of this theoretical ‘competition’. The idea that the truth is actually discoverable is dependent on the discussion variables in which falsehood is shown to be an error. But, if the discussion is not showing falsehood in this way, we risk the truth becoming subjective in the fact that it is based upon choice or the ‘best fit’ - the freedom of speech argument therein lies with whether we are able to accept that in some cases, the best fit argument is the correct method of getting to the truth, even if that means doing it by means that are considerably less valuable in statistical terms and, in some cases far less professional and academic. The problem of objective and subjective truth really mostly applies to when there are many statements of truth and the main problem is agreement and definition, whereas that problem shrinks considerably when there is only one truth available. However, it is not for the participants to decide whether one or more truths are available - this is where freedom of speech tends to gain problems in our own modern day. It is the dictation of absolute truths by one particular side in order to gain a censorship of the sides seen to be against this ‘absolute’ truth perpetuated by the dominant. This dominant is falsely claiming to have absolute truth in philosophical or political arguments where that has already proven by thousands of years of historical study that has shifted on to either side both claiming their own to be correct, that this truth is simply not possible.
Many idealists of the freedom of speech enjoy referencing John Stuart Mill’s theory on the subject in which immorality is less to be considered when it is simply an idea which is being theorised. An idea has little morality or immorality unless received by others and Mill argues that reception should have no impact on whether the idea is actually heard:
‘If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, 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.’ (Mill, 1978).
He argues that the price paid for silencing any freedom of expression would be a pacification of intelligence and he states that sacrifices ‘the entire moral courage of the human mind’ in which he most likely means our ability to differentiate between what we believe and what we don’t in terms of the honest and agreeable truth - not the absolute truth - simply the agreeable truth. Liberal positions in Mill’s own era suggested that it was difficult to infringe upon the rights of others by simply using speech, but in our own modern day, certain freedoms of speech have been censored for intruding on the emotions of others, therefore pacifying our own emotional intelligences according to the theories written by Mill in ‘On Liberty’.
When, however, we ask of the theories of Mill to define what ‘harm’ via speech actually is, there is an apt definition he gives in which breaking the law or the advertisement of mistruths are acts of harm and get in the way of the progression of ideas - but in this respect, does that not mean that some types of freedom of speech can cause rights to be violated and people to actually suffer whether that be emotionally or, worse, financially?
Most modern day institutions that we have in the 21st century have various limits on free speech and therefore, there are certain methods of speech that are considered harmful - the question is not whether they are harmful but whether their bans are justified for the frequency at which it has caused harm. The next question is if Mill’s principles are being followed at all, then why are there people getting suspended jail sentences for saying things on social media applications such as Twitter and Facebook? Surely, the internet is meant to be free of the constraints of the government’s ideas of what we should and should not say? However, using various discrimination acts, there have been developments that state that racially abusing (an example) someone online counts as an act of aggravated assault, or on equal terms of, in the real world. The better question is: when does freedom of speech turn into a hate crime? And, can we trust every single person not to turn freedom of speech into a hate crime. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, where laws on hate crimes and discrimination are very clearly written out - no we cannot prevent the second one from happening as freedom of speech in its entirety as suggested by Mill will inevitably always lead to racism and other forms of discrimination, especially in the 21st century where racial prejudices are held, if not always discussed.
When it comes to the death of freedom of speech today, we have everything ranging from the fact that people are no longer allowed to tell jokes about other people to people complaining because they would rather insult someone than be kind to them. We have a million and one reasons why people feel like the freedom of speech is dying. Joel Feinberg’s Offence Principle stating that offending is less than harming and so, penalties though severe, should be given out in order to maintain a public morale. However, it is still difficult to state where this legislation begins and where it ends.
In conclusion, the research on freedom of speech does not necessarily tell us that it is dying in our own time nearly as much as speech has been oppressed in other generations and centuries, but it does conclude that when it comes to legislating what people are and are not allowed to say, the legislation must come from the receiving end and when the receiving end has not had exposure to differing ideas from their own, freedom of speech can be curtailed as many things can be considered as harmful. The question therefore is not whether freedom of speech is being curtailed but who it is being curtailed by and for what purpose. Freedom of speech is almost always curtailed for a purpose.
- Baker, C.E (1989). Human Liberty and Freedom of Speech. 2nd ed. UK: Oxford University Press. p.7.
- Israel, J.I. (2011). Libertas Philosphandi in the Eighteenth Century: Radical Enlightenment versus Moderate Enlightenment. In: Powers, E. Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea. USA: Bucknell University Press. p.1-18.
- Mill, J.S. (1978). On Liberty, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
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