The Boundaries of Free Speech and Expression

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The Boundaries of Free Speech and Expression

Free speech and expression have no boundaries; people have the right to say and do anything that they think or feel.

Well, not quite. In reality, we know that it’s unacceptable to commit slander or murder. We must revise our thoughts, then, and conclude that there must be some restrictions. It’s tough to disagree with that, right? And yet, to accept that people have the right to say and do whatever pleases them is the reasonable starting point.

It is often said that you do not have the right shout, “fire,” in a crowded theatre. I say, in the narrow scope of free speech and expression that you do, in fact, have that right; this right is merely revoked because it happens to conflict with others’ rights that trump free speech. Yes, I know it effectively boils down to simply saying that you do not have the right in the first place. The benefit, I’d argue, of accepting that you have the right which is then revoked, is that we are compelled to consider rights in conflict and what trumps what, and why.

The right of free speech and expression are basic, fundamental human rights. They are, if you’ll excuse religious speak, “sacred” rights that need not be earned and belong to every human. I mean to say that they are of utmost importance and value to our species. Without them, there can be no real freedom, or progress, or resistance to injustice. Voltaire understood this. He said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” There better be a damned good reason, in other words, to justify revocation. In fact, our right of free speech and expression should only be revoked if our words or deeds conflict directly with a “greater” right of another, such as the right to life, liberty and security of person.

We are free to speak words of idiocy, racism, bigotry, and sexism, but the consequence is that we may—and should—be exposed, mocked, debated, or ignored. We are not free to speak abuse or slander or to commit an act of racism, bigotry, and sexism, or any act that results in direct and serious harm. In such cases, the consequences are rightfully severe, but they are, we must not forget, a small minority, considering. We are still too willing to try to revoke people’s rights. Sometimes, we attempt to censor merely because we are offended. Offence does not trump free speech and expression; it doesn’t even come close.

Christopher Hitchens reminds us that to deny someone the right to speak is to deny our right to listen. Is it not better to embrace our right to hear, to surround ourselves with those with whom we disagree—even despise? Will that not sharpen our opinion, or change it entirely? Is that not a good thing?

The right of free speech and expression is not a landscape with boundaries. Rather, it is a vast, near infinite terrain with a handful of sinkholes that are fenced off to warn and keep people from danger.

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One response »

  1. When everyone has the freedom of speech and expression, it serves to create a possibility of conversation between/among everyone which furthers the possibility of extending all our understanding. It is THE foundation of acknowledging that no one should be silenced because someone else is hurt/offended or has Power Over others to silence them. Psychologically, this right gives us the opportunity to learn to see where we individually end and the Other begins.
    I appreciate your writing on this important aspect of being human.

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