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.

42 Replies to “What is freedom of speech?”

    1. Yes, and the other point is that calling someone a “stupid bum” is unlikely to help your cause.

      1. “What you say may be affected by a stupidity I hear you speak Bummish” would be more constructive.

  1. I’m glad you wrote about this as there is a lot of thoughts on it now a days. I dislike when I read someone was offended about something, but they don’t want to have a conversation about it. They are probably saying or promoting something offensive to someone too. 😦
    I know what I am going to say to somebody when I want to be real real mean. LOL SB!!!!!

    1. I don’t really like the word “offensive” very much. I’ve heard people use it to control the behaviour of others and so this has turned me off the word altogether. How do you debate someone who uses this as their argument?

      Let me know how you go with the SB 🙂

      1. There’s a bit of difference calling out SB and criticizing ideas/beliefs that some folks have that can be harmful/controlling if widespread. 😦
        I am practicing SB and will probably include it in a post tomorrow. lol

  2. Is money the same as speech? The Citizens United ruling by the US Supreme Court allows corporations to give as much money as they wish to candidates as a freedom of expression. The Koch brothers and their associates have now raised $830 million to put into the 2016 elections and sociologists are now saying that our form of government is becoming an oligarchy. Equating money with free speech seems to be a violation of both language and democratic elections.

    Is giving your proper titled free speech? Here in Kansas, the legislature is considering a law that would prevent professors at universities from giving their title when they write letters to the editor and opinion pieces for newspapers. Apparently the politician do not want for people to know that the Professors who write those articles are speaking from a position of knowledge and authority. That seems to be a violation of free speech.

    Does free speech allow lying? FOX News presents biased articles and lies and claim they have a right to do so because of freedom of speech. It is certainly a violation of journalistic ethics, but Fox claims that they are an entertainment channel, though many of their viewers believe them to be presenting facts?

    Are people responsible for the actions that result from their speech? Here in Kansas, members an extreme right-wing pro-life group claims that abortion is murder and that doctors that perform abortions should be killed. One of their members shot to death an abortion Doctor at his church. He was caught, but should all those that advocated for the doctor’s execution also be tried?

    Freedom of free speech should be done responsibly, but there is really no way to get that idea across to irresponsible people.

    1. I think those examples are all stretching the definition of freedom of speech. Election spending in New Zealand is capped so it’s not possible for political parties with access to large funds to have an unfair advantage; and it is an unfair advantage. In the last New Zealand election spending was capped at $25,700 per candidate and $1.091 million for political parties. More here:

      In looking up these figures I discovered that this has been the case since 1895 in New Zealand:

      Obviously freedom of speech does not entitle a journalist to report lies. The Society of Professional Journalists have in their code of ethics:

      Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

      In the UK, it’s possible to report breaches of codes of practice by the media to IPSO: Independent Press Standards Organistion. Of course it takes time to do this and often by the time the complaint gets resolved and a correction is made, everyone has forgotten about the story and no-one takes any notice.

      Your last example would definitely fall under John Stuart Mill’s no harm principle. It’s fine to express anti-abortion ideas, but it’s definitely not fine to murder someone for performing an abortion. The murderer can’t really argue freedom of speech in this case as they’ve clearly denied the doctor his freedom of speech by killing him. You can’t argue from a position of freedom of speech and then deny your opponent freedom of speech.

    2. In the United States, “Freedom of Speech” specifically means political commentary on, or even against, government. That is the most protected speech of all.

      The idea that “non speech” is protected as speech came into existence with the Vietnam war and flag burning, which at the time was against the law. It probably still is against the law but was trumped by the first amendment when “speech” suddenly and mysteriously became “expression”.

      Subsequently, almost any activity imaginable can be considered “expressive” unless of course your expression is targeting any of a vast number of protected classes, and you aren’t in any of them, in which case suddenly you have very little freedom of expression or speech.

      In the case of Citizens United, which benefits Democrats as much as Republicans, except of course Democrats complain more generally anyway, relates to the most important role of speech, and that is political commentary or “expression”.

      The theory is straightforward. You and I have freedom to speak politically. Since it is a right, it can be delegated to a person of our choosing to speak on our behalf. If a great many people combine together to create a political expression, such as Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” movie which is indisputably political in purpose and expression, that is an aggregation of its contributor’s First Amendment rights. Citizens United is a political group that created a movie critical of Democrats; I don’t even know what it is since that kind of movie making doesn’t interest me (I also didn’t see Al Gore’s movie), but I recognize the principle that people don’t lose that right just because they have aggregated and delegated. In fact, all PAC’s operate on this principle.

      Artificial caps on contributions, while I recognize their purpose and utility, violates my sense of liberty that you ought to be able to do with your speech and your money pretty much whatever you like; and of course your opponents are free to do likewise.

      Ultimately it is not very efficient; but think about it — Mitt Romney spent a vast sum of money and it’s gone. In the end, it does sort of equalize; the rich become poorer and the poor stay poor, except of course the thousands of people that work on a campaign and bleed the wealthy of all that money.

      An acceptable course of action, to me, would be to reinstate that “speech” is words. Expression is not speech and money is not speech. But your freedom to use your money should also be largely unfettered. It’s yours. This may be an alien concept to Crown Colonies where everything was owned by the Crown, including money, and citizens merely used or leased everything that exists at the pleasure of the Crown.

      The United States has no sovereign and that makes a HUGE difference. No citizen has any more right than any other, nor any less (generally speaking), but these rights can be delegated, which is the case with police. In a kingdom, the police are appendages of the sovereign, but the US doesn’t have one, so the police are actually an appendage of the citizens, delegating my own right to defend myself against crime to the police. They are using MY rights, not the rights delegated from a non-existent sovereign.

      It is a common mistake to think any rights were created by the US Constitution. It merely enumerates some rights recognized to already exist naturally among the citizens by tradition, culture and common law. Canada doesn’t have a Constitution and wanders somewhere between similar ideas but not exactly codified in ultimate law. Even so, your cultural norm is going to be quite different as compared to the United States.

      The Internet blends cultures and ideas; the result being the American wild-wild-west anything goes kind of liberty is appealing, or appalling, to the rest of the world; and some of the Crown sovereign ideas are appealing, or appalling, to citizens of the United States. I am very happy not to have a sovereign of any kind.

      As for offending others, I have little doubt that I do so regularly, just as others offend me regularly, but one learns to turn the other cheek, or at least turn the steering wheel as the case may be.

  3. Excellent reflection, Rachel. Elizabeth knows what’s best. I love her innocence and wisdom.

    Unfortunately, as we grow up, we find more rational and complex ways to understand the issue.

    There was a new shooting in Denmark yesterday and that made me question again freedom of speech. Like you, I believe my freedom stops when other’s start. Should we insult other’s beliefs? Should they kill us for doing that?
    Again, Elizabeth knows better.

    JC Moore brought also very good points.

    Thanks for this post.

    1. Yes, it’s awful what has happened in Denmark. But I still think we should have the freedom to ridicule religion, even when it might offend others. But this does not give someone who is offended the right to murder. On the topic of cartoons, Peter Singer says

      To restrict freedom of expression because we fear such consequences would not be the right response. It would only provide an incentive for those who do not want to see their views criticized to engage in violent protests in future. Instead, we should forcefully defend the right of newspaper editors to publish such cartoons, if they choose to do so, and hope that respect for freedom of expression will eventually spread to countries where it does not yet exist.


    2. lucile, there are lot of people, especially religious people who believe stupid things and they deserve all the ridicule they get. Stupidity gets what it deserves, and the first thing is to get laughed at.

      1. “religious people who believe stupid things”

        That would include me, I hope. I am fulfilled when judgmental people think judgmental thoughts of me based on absolutely nothing more than you have described. It is SO much better than simply being ignored!

        I use “stupid” and “smart” in an outcome-based way. I have more intelligence or IQ than my boss, but he is much smarter than I am, which is why he’s the boss and I work for him. He respects my intelligence and I respect his smartness, the actual application of intelligence to daily living. An example of “stupid” is someone that drives down the wrong way on a street; he or she puts himself at unnecessary risk; it is anti-survival.

        So: Survival=smart, anti-survival=stupid.

        With that in mind, a religious person in a religious nation is smart and might not be as “religious” as he seems. An atheist in a religious nation would be stupid since that is an anti-survival point of view in that context.

        “they deserve all the ridicule they get.”

        I do not understand the concept of “deserve” Can you explain it? It is a child’s word. It usually means getting something for nothing: “I deserve it!” says a child; as if by her mere existence she should have an iPhone.

        I am dismayed that you are willing to invest your life energy and purpose to the process called “ridicule”. It is a group maintenance activity by the herd to push slightly-less conforming members to the edge where they will be eaten by predators. The process of “ridicule” identifies the herd member to be exiled to her doom. It is in your DNA. Boys fight and determine the alpha male, girls ridicule and determine the alpha female. The only advantage is reproductive; for everything else it pays handsomely to NOT be at the point of the spear.

        “Stupidity gets what it deserves”

        The consequences of stupid behavior, such as driving on the wrong side of the road, tends to be immediate and self-correcting.

        “the first thing is to get laughed at.”

        By all means, laugh and see if I care. Depending on what you find amusing, very likely I also will find amusing, even if it is about me. One of the strengths of NOT being in a herd is not worrying what the herd worries about. I have no “tribe” to be ejected from and I seek admission to no tribe. But there’s a third kind of person; which in the movie “American Sniper” is called the “sheepdog”; neither sheep nor wolf, but watches out for wolves among the sheep. I think I am one of those.

      2. Shub,
        Your comment implies that you would know that you’re not a stupid person and that the person you’re mocking is a stupid person. How do you know that it isn’t the other way around; that you’re a stupid person who doesn’t realise that they’re a stupid person, and that the person you’re mocking isn’t actually a stupid person? Similarly, if someone mocks you for being stupid, does that mean that you have to be a stupid person, or could it be that the other person – who is doing the mocking – is actually the stupid person?

    1. Apparently Canada thinks speech has limits and lying has consequences. The National Post of Toronto from 2009-2010, published article after article decrying Andrew Weaver as a “climate alarmist” and “Canada’s warmest spinner-in-chief”.

      Weaver had the last laugh, when, after filing a lawsuit for defamation, he was awarded 50,000 Canadian dollars in damages, and the removal of all articles containing ‘libelous’ or misquoted material. ”

      The judge said : ” While certainly entitled to express their views, in this case as part of that expression, they deliberately created a negative impression of Dr. Weaver.” She went on to say that, “I conclude the defendants have been careless or indifferent to the accuracy of the facts…As evident from the testimony of the defendants, they were more interested in espousing a particular view than assessing the accuracy of the facts.”

  4. Thank you for the insight. I have really been struggling with this exact thing. Aren’t we getting carried away with this and causing such harm to people? Don’t we have a responsibility to think before we speak? Would you rather be right or be happy? And yes, there are no absolutes or complete truths. It is all perception. Can’t we respect each other’s perceptions and move on?

    1. Aren’t we getting carried away with this and causing such harm to people?

      This is why I quite like the “no harm” principle. Freedom of speech is our right, provided it doesn’t cause direct harm to others.

    1. Yes, I’m not particularly interested in political correctness or being careful not to offend others and so I support freedom of speech even when it might be offensive to others. Those cartoons are probably a good example of this.

      1. i agree, my friend. kind of tough sometimes when someone is thin skinned. Or to say feel insulted, or hurt feelings even if truth is said with civility.

    1. Thanks, Sandy. I’ve been thinking about it a lot too and will probably continue to think about it. Maybe I’ll change my mind some more. Who knows!

  5. Rachel,

    There is a guide to the UK’s Human Rights Act (HRA) at https://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/human-rights/act-studyguide.pdf

    Also, this is the wording of the European Convention of Human Rights Article on freedom of expression (implemented in the HRA) :

    Article 10
    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent states from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
    2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

    Of course, having the right does not mean one shouldn’t use wisdom in exercising that right!

  6. Came from Ladysighs reblog. Your post speaks to the heart of responsibility and human decency. Do we know where the line is in the sand? Borrowed from England, our civil law was developed by these lines, human interaction. Thank you for this insightful post.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! Ladysighs’ post was great and I enjoyed listening to her rendition of “stupid bum”. I like the idea of “responsibility and human decency”.

  7. Criticising or ridiculing other people’s ideological views, religious, political or otherwise are necessities in any free society. When Singer talks about incitement to ‘religious’ hatred he is using ‘religious’ in an context where it defines an immigrant group, the Irish in Scotland for example, where most ‘anti-Catholic’ prejudice is in reality anti-Irish prejudice, as it is rarely directed against Catholics of Italian or Polish descent.

    1. Yes, you’re probably right. Although I have to say that so far I haven’t noticed any anti-Irish sentiment here in Scotland thank goodness.

      1. Aye, but the North East of Scotland doesn’t have the same degree of ‘sectarianism’ that exists in the Central Belt, more so in Greater Glasgow than in Edinburgh, though I’d recommend reading Irvine Welsh’s book ‘Filth’ if you want to know what I am referring to.

  8. Excellent post Rachel…and smiing at Elizabeth’s ‘mean thing’…oh to have the mind of a child…

    1. Yes, I love asking my kids for their views because they’re usually funny but they also just make sense…most of the time anyway.

  9. Rachel,
    A great post with thought provoking comments. I particularly liked the reference to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
    Freedom of Expression was one of the Four Freedoms enunciated by Roosevelt and Churchill in the 1941 Atlantic Charter.
    The “exceptions” in Article 10(2) are the areas where national legislation should be permitted to govern and limit what would otherwise be an unfettered right capable of abuse. We should be careful however in restraining speech on grounds that it may be ” offensive ” to some listener. The UK Parliament has last year dropped the word ” offensive ” from section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 for this reason, recognising legislative overreach.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Douglas. I agree wholeheartedly with your views and it makes sense to have some exceptions to freedom of speech but something being “offensive” should not be one of them. The difficulty for me is applying these in practical situations.

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