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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