What is freedom of speech?

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the idea of freedom of speech and freedom of expression this week and what it means exactly. It’s not something I’ve thought a great deal about in the past because I’ve always felt I had the freedom to express my thoughts, which I quite frequently do, and I’m very grateful for this. It’s nice to live in a society that allows us to express our ideas, no matter how whacky they may be. But are there limits?

I wrote a post a little while ago about how I never take anything to extremes: All or nothing? A better way to phrase it, unless I’ve misunderstood this term, is that I reject absolutism. This is the idea that values and principles are absolute and not relative or dependent on other factors. I can see that free speech falls into this category. My right to free speech stops at the point where my actions do or could potentially violate the rights of someone else. Peter Singer, in defending someone’s right to deny the Holocaust and ridicule religion, says:

Laws against incitement to racial, religious, or ethnic hatred, in circumstances where that incitement is intended to – or can reasonably be foreseen to – lead to violence or other criminal acts, are different, and are compatible with maintaining freedom to express any views at all.

John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty, supports this view when he says:

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. (1978, 5)


the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (1978, 9)

The two John Stuart Mill quotes have been copied from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Freedom of Speech which is very good reading. The difficult question now becomes: in what situations is it acceptable to limit free speech? John Stuart Mill provides an example. He says it’s fine to write an opinion article in the press claiming that corn-dealers “are starvers of the poor” but it’s not ok to say the same thing to an excited mob in front of the home of a corn dealer. The Stanford article calls this Mill’s Harm Principle and I largely agree with it.

The Stanford article then goes on to describe the offence principle as a limit to free speech and I must admit I don’t have much support for this. It’s my experience that people play the “I find it offensive” card as a way to manipulate and restrict the rights of others. I also can’t think of any examples where “offense” could be a legitimate reason to restrict freedom of speech because it would also mean we couldn’t criticise and ridicule religions and I think it’s important that we’re free to deny the existence of God or to publish cartoons about Catholicism or Islam.

This post was partly motivated by an article I read recently on Wired called, The laborers who keep dick pics and beheadings out of your Facebook feed. Apparently there is an army of workers in the Philippines whose job is to remove objectionable material from Twitter and Facebook. The article isn’t about freedom of speech; it’s about the mental toll of spending day after day witnessing the astonishing breadth and reach of human depravity. I don’t classify content removal like this as a restriction on freedom of speech or expression. Videos of beheadings will still be available on news sites on the web. Other things, like child pornography, ought to be removed and I don’t think anyone could argue with this given the harm they cause to children.

This morning, as I was pondering all of this, I asked Elizabeth whether we should be allowed to say whatever we want. Here’s what she said:

Elizabeth: Yes
Me: What if you want to say something mean?
Elizabeth: I wouldn’t say anything mean.
Me: What do you think would be something mean to say?
Elizabeth: You’re a stupid bum. That’s the meanest thing you can say.