Freedom of speech: what are the limits?

The sentiment “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it“, attributed to Voltaire, encapsulates the concept of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is integral to democracy. We consider it one of our inalienable rights. We all know that those who speak their minds about political matters in, for example, Vladimir Putin’s Russia are inviting trouble, perhaps fatally; but in the west we’re different, and in this respect we consider ourselves superior. However, in some regards, our right to free speech is being curtailed, while in others it’s being abused. This disturbs me. Deeply.

To wring one’s hands about the dissemination of “fake news”, the lies involved in the Brexit Referendum debate and the most recent USA presidential election, the garbage spouted via social media, the disgusting headlines perpetrated by certain tabloid “newspapers”, and so on and so forth, would be to reiterate what’s already been said and lamented a thousand times and more. I’m not minimising the threat of such public mendacity, which is a menace to democracy. But I want to write about two other issues, as indicated in my opening paragraph: the present-day (a) curtailment and (b) abuse of our right to freedom of speech.

Recently, we learned that Dr James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA and now a 90-year-old elder statesman of science, has been publicly deprived of some of his honours by reiterating his views about racial differences in intelligence, which he considers hereditary. What is so worrying about this reaction to Watson’s opinions is that he isn’t being “punished” for being wrong (which he surely is – demonstrably wrong, in my view), but for saying something socially unacceptable, i.e. for voicing a kind of racism. In what way, morally speaking, is this condemnation of Watson different from the condemnation of an anti-Putin Russian spokesperson, or a Saudi national critical of certain aspects of Sunni Islam? If we treat our respected citizens in this manner, can we in the west really consider ourselves “superior”? Why didn’t those who objected to Watson’s statements engage in debate with him in order to prove him mistaken? Isn’t that what’s supposed to happen in a democratic society?

The Watson case isn’t unique. For example, two members of the Indian cricket team currently touring Australia, Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul, have been sent home for “re-education” after expressing views about women on television that the authorities deemed reprehensible. From what I’ve heard of those views, I too find them reprehensible. But if I’m entitled to my opinion on the matter, aren’t Pandya and Rahul entitled to theirs? It’s one thing for the team captain and management to dissociate themselves from the two players’ views, which they did, but it’s another thing altogether simply to condemn them out of hand. Why not engage in rational argument with them – in public – and demonstrate that the opinion they expressed is misguided and has the potential to cause harm? Wouldn’t that be more in keeping with the spirit of freedom of speech – the spirit of democracy?

On the other hand, a man has been arrested outside Parliament in Westminster for calling the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, a “fascist”. The accusation was made in a loud, threatening manner and is symptomatic of the abuse to which far too many of our public figures, including politicians (and especially, it seems, women politicians) are being subjected. The abuse includes threats of physical violence, and less than two years ago one young MP was murdered in broad daylight by someone who disagreed with her. To distort Voltaire: if I disagree with you, I will frighten the life out of you for daring to have the right to disagree with me. Threats and abuse of that kind aren’t in the interests of democracy. They represent the worst kind of abuse of our right to freedom of speech. I’m pleased that the scoundrel who shouted so offensively at Ms Leadsom was arrested. (For what it’s worth, I disagree with much of Ms Leadsom’s politics, too. But she has as much right to her political views as I have to differ from them.)

Of course, we regularly satirise our politicians in television comedy shows, newspaper cartoons and everyday chatter. If someone can’t tolerate being satirised and derided for the views they hold, the way they express them or (in some cases) their inappropriate behaviour, they shouldn’t have taken on the role of MP. Satire of that kind isn’t threatening. It might cause an individual politician to rethink her/his stance, but that’s generally a good thing. The satirist is using the right to freedom of speech in an acceptable, if sometimes cruel, way – and would be unlikely to last long (to return to the earlier example) in Putin’s Russia. But satire attacks the song more than the singer. It isn’t an ad hominem (or in Ms Leadsom’s case, ad feminam) threat. It’s compatible with democracy.

To combat both these treats to freedom of speech, the curtailment and the abuse, we need to return to informed, rational debate in place of outright condemnation and public humiliation on the one hand, and violent abuse on the other. Unfortunately, the growth of social media seems to be fostering the extremes of condemnation and abuse and marginalising proper debate, and in those respects it is in itself a threat to democracy.


  • “We need to return to informed, rational debate…” Oh, if only! I have been struggling with similar issues lately, feeling that ‘freedom of speech’ is a phrase being used to excuse the abhorrent behavior of media and leaders. Our forefathers must be rolling in their graves. “Freedom of Speech” was meant to make room for differences of opinion, particularly with regards to disagreements between government and the common man. It was a right to express an opinion that conflicted with others. Never was it meant to give room for fancy painted lies or uninformed unbridled outbursts of insanity.

    How is it that there is no longer shame involved in being caught in a lie? Now it merely causes the liar to alter their course and continue with further lies.

    A ‘threat’ to democracy? Indeed, it is. And the ones who sling the abuse are clueless to the fact that they are threatening the very right they are abusing.

    • I agree entirely with you, Shai. For research purposes (possible new novel?) I’ve been reading studies of popular protest in 16th century England, a land with no police force or standing army or even any substantial government bureaucracy. A handful of these (many) protests got out of hand and repression was severe and bloody, but the overwhelming majority stayed within the bounds of civilised behaviour, however intense and strongly-motivated they were. Interestingly, the ruling aristocrats often gave way to the demands of the protesting poor in those cases, or at least reached a workable agreement with them. Despite centuries of social progress since then, we seem to have lost something important!

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