Freedom of Speech | Words do not Kill

Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with CRAZYCONTRARIAN

“A recent survey suggests that 45% Americans don’t understand the First Amendment.  (…) Contrary to popular belief, the First Amendment does not allow people to say anything they want without consequence.  Speech has never been protected in all situations, and the First Amendment has never applied to private citizens and private entities that have prohibited speech in one way or the other.” FIRST AMENDMENT 101


Freedom of speech is yet another issue that has left the realm of abstract debate.

Most people would consider freedom of speech as a prima facie right, one that cannot and should not be alienated, yet trigger-happy governments have been known to overreact to instances when this right is used by individuals with questionable personal or political agendas, by proposing bills that would curtail that freedom. I refer here to a bill proposed in the UK a few years ago that intended to outlaw speech that incites religious hatred, prompted by crazycontrarian‘s Side Note, which indicates that in the US  for example “the government can interfere and punish speech when the speech (1) incites violence; (2) constitutes “fighting words”” and so on.

Is the freedom to criticise ideas not a fundamental freedom of society? I do not condone the use of this freedom to incite religious hatred, and yet legislating against opinion and curtailing the freedom to express it seems like a step too far. There are already sufficient laws to deal with extreme situations.

Words do not kill. In a democracy at least, we should cherish the right to criticise rival ways of life and express our disagreement freely. We may disagree with those who exercise their freedom, but this freedom should be protected, or else we will come to live in a world where only those views ratified by the state would be acceptable. I lived under such a regime. It is not one I would like to ever return to.

As stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19. “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” 

At times it can be difficult to balance between liberal-democratic beliefs in freedom of opinion and expression and the language that multiculturalism can take against religion. Nonetheless, making legislation to prohibit criticising religious and other ways of life will neither eradicate hatred, nor stop it from being expressed through media that is more difficult to regulate. Conversely, this may increase the appeal of illicit language by giving it an aura of anti-establishment valour.

This debate opens another crucial subject: rights as ‘privileges’. The subtext of this theory is more dangerous than it appears to be.

Firstly it rejects the universality of human rights, transforming them into a good conferred to a limited number of individuals, thus it legitimises the prosecution, torture or even enslavement of the “unprivileged”.

Secondly, it implies that rights can be taken away and denotes that they are at the disposal of governments; this could justify such mayhem as the concentration camps during the Second World War – if rights are given by governments, they can just as easily be taken away.

Finally, it implies that rights should be earned or deserved, somewhat like the Honours conferred by the Crown. The above picture appears to be better suited to describe the organisation of crime rings, rather than liberal democracies.

In my opinion, human rights – freedom of speech amongst them – shouldn’t be subject to overruling and any government intending to countermand them should be required to justify their actions extensively.


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18 thoughts on “Freedom of Speech | Words do not Kill

  1. In the U.S. our courts have set up levels of tests to see if a law is constitutional or not. From a “rational basis,” test for things like taxes and the like to what is supposed to be the highest standard, the “strict scrutiny,” standard for things which we deem “fundamental rights,” like our freedom of speech and freedom of religion laws.
    As with any law, it is going to be interpreted however the powers that be at the time want it to be interpreted. We are pretty diligent, many of us at least, in requiring the government to not curtail what we have called those “fundamental rights,” such as the 1st amendment.

    • Very interesting points, Jim. Thank you. It reminded me about the system of checks and balances on which the American system is based. I suppose these were set up precisely in order to make abuses of power difficult for those who for a time hold those positions.

  2. Well argued points, and I totally agree with your summing up – thorough justification is essential if any rights are to be challenged, especially as freedom of speech can. E a notoriously grey area.

    • A grey area indeed. I suppose that is why whenever any legislation that could affect these rights and freedoms is proposed, the public stands to attention. Thank you, Chris.

  3. As with everything Fundamental Human Rights are not black and white. They are very very grey. There is a great deal of ambiguity, the real question is how we handle this ambiguity. Yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater is “speech”. Do we protect this speech? What are the limits and exceptions? Is it acceptable to yell Fire if there really is a fire? What counts as a fire, someone smoking in the theater is technically a fire. Do we allow only specific people (like firefighters and police) to yell Fire since they have special training in how to identify and handle emergency situations? What about breaking a story about a chemical leak that causes a panic. How is this different than yelling “Fire”? The very concept of “Freedom of Speech” is unclear.

    On rights as privileges. This is even more insidious that you described. Air waves/radio frequencies are a limited resource. One that must be regulated. You need the privilege of a broadcast license to exercise your right to speech. So it’s not just the existence of the rights that are susceptible to the privileges classification, but also the ability the exercise the rights. How should we distribute Radio stations broadcast privileges that doesn’t make it possible to buy up and restrict the freedoms of others without also denoting privileged groups that have special protections or provisions under the law? If the government sells off the privileges of broadcast frequencies, but only to Mega Media outlets friendly to them, is this government restricting speech or private entities restricting speech?

    • The point you make about ambiguity when it comes to the interpretation of rights is very important. Freedom is a very slippery concept indeed, especially because it bridges the dichotomy between the descriptive and the normative: how the world is and how it ought to be. And I quite agree that there is a distinction too between formal rights and effective rights. Just because certain rights are ours, it does not necessarily follow that we will also have the opportunity to exercise them, as your example about radio waves shows. Thank you for your comment. Food for thought, certainly.

  4. Canada has had to deal with special interest/PC/status quo groups attempting to suppress freedom of expression via appeals to human “rights” tribunals (staffed with the same sort of people) that the expression that offended them was “hate” speech. It took a public outcry and a few brave individuals to quell this trend.

    Great post. I actually bring this up in my book. Canada apparently has the worst protection for freedom of expression amongst the major English speaking nations.

    I will push the envelope on this to the extreme.

    • You are quite right in emphasising that not every opinion expressed that offends is necessarily hate speech. There is a distinction. I am glad you enjoyed this article. Will you be pushing the topic to an extreme in the sense of the reductio ad absurdum method?

      • No, I wasn’t referring to the method of argument. What I will be arguing will constitute a great heresy to contemporary politically correct thinking. I used the word extreme in this sense.

        In terms of logic, lacking formal education in the field, I will employ a rudimentary geometric/Occam’ish approach, buttressed by the work of the late Professor Carroll Quigley.

  5. Our free speech is limited in the US (which does have does have so positives) but hate groups may get permits to hold rallies and march in parades. But we can own as many guns as we want. I wish people really understood the Second Amendment, the part about well regulated militia which I thought meant military and at the time written that’s what it meant but not anymore.

  6. I think this is an interesting point. And whilst I think freedom of speech is something all people should be allowed, I find it interesting that many governments pay heed to the speech of many minority groups who are pushing their own agendas at the expense of others.
    And you are correct in your assumption that words cannot kill, they can inflict deeply painful wounds.

    • Ah yes… words can cut deep and leave lasting wounds certainly. They can install fear and inflict pain. Yet despite all of this, like you, I too believe that freedom of speech ought to be protected. As with any right, there will be those who try to abuse it, but that is not justification enough for it not to be a right at all. Thank you, Suzy.

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