Group work: 100% freedom of speech?


Aim: In this group work the students will reflect on possible limitations of freedom of speech in cases where words and expressions may have devastating effects


  1. After a short introduction by the moderator, the students will be divided into groups. Depending on the time available, each group will discuss some or all of the questions below. At the end of the session, reflections and conclusions from the groups will be presented in plenum. Here is a proposal for an introduction to the group work:

    Sometimes words are harmful. There are expressions that are so hurtful, so destructive, so offensive, or with so grave consequences that the question is inevitable: Should they be prohibited?

    In principle, freedom of speech should have no boundaries. If we begin to enforce limitations, we no longer have total freedom of speech. However, in everyday life, freedom of speech without any boundaries is impossible. This is why all countries in the world have legislation that limits freedom of speech. Some countries have many and very strict limitations which practically eliminate the citizen`s freedom of speech. Others have a few and moderate limitations which do not necessarily undermine the principle of freedom of speech. But there is no country without any limitations at all.

    Below, you will find a list of areas where expressions may in one way or another be harmful to an individual, a group or an institution. According to your opinion, do the harmful effects implied in each question given below call for restrictions on citizens’ freedom of speech? In other words: Should such expressions be forbidden by law?

    Note: We are not asking whether an expression is wrong, bad or unwise, nor if it is unreasonable or ethically indefensible. We are asking: Should it be prohibited by law?

    1. Libel, defamation
    Should we be allowed to speak and write about a person in a negative way and offend his name and reputation? Libel is generally about written statements, while defamation and slander refer to verbal accusations. Both refer to a claim that might well be false, and that might paint the person, organization or business in a negative light.

    2. Privacy
    What about public disclosure of private facts? The right to privacy is a human right.  Does this imply a limitation to freedom of speech?

    3. Insulting authorities
    Should it be allowed to criticize and insult the leaders of a nation?

    4. Criticize the boss
    What about publicly criticizing your employer, your workplace or your boss?

    5. Hate speech, discrimination
    By hate speech we mean offensive and discriminating statements directed towards someone on the basis of their ethnicity, colour, gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion or any other characteristic.

    6. Blasphemy
    By blasphemy we mean insulting and offending religion and people`s beliefs and faith.

    7. Pornography
    Is production and consumption of pornography protected by freedom of speech? Perhaps you want to distinguish between different types of pornography here.

    8. Revealing military secrets
    The armed forces have a strong tradition of secrecy. Can it be justifiable to reveal military secrets under any circumstances?

    9. Breaking professional secrecy
    Medical doctors, lawyers and social workers all come under the statutory rule of professional secrecy. Do you agree that this is a defendable limitation on freedom of speech for these groups?  

  2. Reflections and conclusions from the groups will be presented in plenum. 


  • Ash, Timothy Garton (2016): Free Speech. Ten Principles for a Connected World. London: Atlantic Books.
  • Maussen, M., & Grillo, R. (2014). Regulation of Speech in Multicultural Societies: Introduction. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 40(2), 174–193.
  • Midtbøen, A.H, Steen-Johnsen & K, Thorbjørnsrud, K (eds) (2017): Boundary Struggles. Contestations of Free Speech in the Norwegian Public Sphere. Oslo: Cappelen Damm.
  • Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Freedom of Speech” 
  • Steel, John (2012): Journalism and free speech. London: Routledge.
  • Rønning, Helge (2013): “Freedom of expression is not a given right”. Freedom of Expression Revisited. Göteborg: Nordicom.

Svein Brurås, Professor, Faculty of Media and Journalism, Volda University College (Norway)

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