Lecture: Freedom of speech

Why should one insist on freedom of speech? What are the reasons behind this idea which today is considered a fundamental human right?

Throughout most of history there was no such thing as freedom of expression. The concept is about 300 years old, when modern society slowly emerged. 1

However, many countries still do not have freedom of speech, and it is under attack and violated from time to time in all countries in the world.

Why should we insist on freedom of speech? That is the topic of discussion for this lecture.


Three main arguments 


If we examine the history of ideas and the philosophy that have led to this strong emphasis on freedom of speech in the modern and free society, we find three main arguments, or three reasons, that explain why this right is so important and necessary:

  1. The Principle of Autonomy.
    This relates to the question: What is a human being?  

  2. The Principle of Democracy.
    This relates to the question: How can we build the best possible society, achieve the best way to live together?

  3. The Principle of Truth.
    This relates to the question: How can we come as close as possible to the truth? We will never reach it completely, but how can we make progress and come as close as possible? 

Looking back in history, these are the three main reasons given for advocating freedom of speech. Each of them has considerable credence, which hopefully you will agree with when you have got the following brief introductions to each of them.


1. The Principle of Autonomy


One argument for the freedom of speech is to be found in a particular understanding of the human being. Think about it: What are the characteristics of a human being? You and I are thinking and feeling creatures, with thoughts and emotions, and we have an innate need to communicate our thoughts and feelings to and with others.

The nature of the human being exceeds the mere physical needs. It is true, we need water and food and light and warmth. But we also have other basics needs that are a part of what constitutes a human being: That is to be a conscious, reflecting and feeling creature, with opinions and knowledge and beliefs that we want to express to other people. And this need to express oneself is the way in which the individual shows and marks his or her identity: Here am I, this is me. This is also how we have our identity confirmed by others: Do you see me? Do you hear me? Communicating with others is part of being human. A human being communicates and expresses him- or herself.

This right of expression is a natural right that everyone should have. It is a right that confirms one’s value as a human being. If you cannot express yourself, if you cannot speak, then part of your humanity has been taken away or denied you. Therefore, freedom of speech is an acknowledgement of the individual`s value as a human being.

Human beings are born free and are meant to live out their lives in freedom.

However, we live in a society, we are not alone, we are part of a collective, a community, and we must to a certain extent accommodate each other and adapt to each other. This means accepting limitations and restrictions on our freedom. Such limitations may be expressed by moral standards in a community or by rules of law established by governmental power.

Since the Enlightenment in Europe, we have had the line of thought stating that the only grounds for imposing limitations on the individual`s freedom are considerations for the right of others to the same freedom.

Throughout history, the discussion has centered on the balance between the individual and the community and which of the two should have precedence. Different answers have been given, different solutions have been tried, but we will not go into that here. The problem is to address both: How can we maintain individual freedom in a community and a society?

While this is a topic of intense discussion, we can claim with certainty that there can be no individual freedom without the freedom of speech.


2. The Principle of Democracy


Freedom of speech is an integral part of democracy. In a democracy, the opinions of the citizens are the basis for the government’s exercise of power. And then, of course, the authorities cannot set limits on opinions and expressions. The thoughts and opinions of the individual citizen are the final authority in a democratic society.

This means, firstly, that governments and institutions of power should be transparent, which means that we as citizens have access to information about the powers and institutions that rule society. As citizens, we need knowledge. We must know where the power is, and what it does. We have a right to know what is going on in the corridors of power, in parliament, in the ministries and in the courts where the state exercises its power to sentence people to jail terms. We have the right to seek and receive information that is in the possession of public agencies. This is necessary if we are to exercise our role as participants in a democracy.

Secondly, this means that before any political decision is made, there should be public discussion about it. Democracy is not only “the rule of the majority” through elected representatives. Just as important are the discussions and debates before decisions are made, when different points of views are expressed, arguments are put forward and everyone has the opportunity to take part and express their views. Public opinion is developed in this process, and then the politicians make their decisions.

This demands, of course, full freedom for all kinds of views, opinions and expressions.


3. The Principle of Truth 


We will never arrive at the full and complete truth. This also applies to truth about nature as there will always be a need for correction. This also applies to truth about society. The need for criticism will always be present, including criticism of power, of the system. We will never achieve the perfect society. That is why there will always be the need for opposition, new perspectives and diverging ideas.

This realization that flourished in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries as a part of enlightenment and liberalism was reflected in the new constitutions by the end of the 18th century, and these have since been the model for many countries.

The search for truth has always been a distinctive trait of mankind. The term “truth” is here to be understood in a broad sense: as recognition of science, knowledge about nature and “facts”; as recognition of cultural truths, that is how we are to understand and interpret the world and life, and political truths, meaning the best way to live together and organize society.

We should note here that by “truth” we mean rational truth, not any kind of religious truth. We are considering here the lines of thought that developed from the Enlightenment and rationalism and the mentality of science. This is the truth which we try to achieve through reason, and which we will never learn completely.

As human beings we are fallible. This means that our perceptions always need to be challenged, and that we become wiser by listening to objections. This applies to every one of us as individuals, and it also applies to organizations and communities, and governments and states. If we do not know the counter-arguments, we cannot know if we are right. To bring counter-arguments into the open, we need full freedom of expression.

Protection of the unwanted


The most difficult, but also the most important, aspect of freedom of speech is that it protects the expressions we do not like. Expressions we agree with do not need much protection; we appreciate them. But what about the expressions we disagree with, or dislike, or even consider distasteful, ignorant and threatening? We find them provocative. This is when freedom of expression is really put to the test. These are the kinds of expression that really need protection.

This must not be misunderstood: We do not mean that you should avoid speaking out against such expressions. Indeed, you should speak out. We should all speak out when we disagree, and there should be no limitations on speaking out. The point is: We should not forbid these types of expression, or threaten the people who express them, or punish them.

A famous statement puts it this way: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” 2

What we are defending is the right to express ourselves, not the content of the expressions.

Most profoundly, the freedom of speech protects the minority. This is clearly apparent if we consider for a moment the difference between a democracy and a dictatorship or a totalitarian state.

The hallmark of a democracy is that different views are confronted, arguments are proffered and the will of the majority is carried out. Society is run and developed in accordance with the opinion of the majority.

But, and this is important, the minority is not forced into silence! They still have the complete right to keep their opinions, and to express them, to say whatever they want. They are tolerated, they are allowed to criticize the majority and the power elite. They can still present their arguments, and then perhaps one day their arguments will gain support and be accepted.

In a democracy, the government acts according to the will of the majority. This may also be the case in a totalitarian state, even if most often this not the case. On this point, the two types of government may be similar. But they are not similar when it comes to the opportunity for the minority to express their views. In a totalitarian state, minorities are silenced.

Freedom of speech is most profoundly the protection of the outvoted, of the minorities.

A Swedish report on freedom of speech explains this point as follows:

“Furthermore, freedom of speech has the character of a restriction which the majority places on itself in relation to different minorities and individuals. The majority tolerates threats against their own values and community. This is extremely difficult. But it is exactly what is demanded. Because this constitutes a free society. And it also brings renewal and growth. 3

No matter how you dislike the others, no matter how upsetting their opinions might be, they must be allowed to express themselves. If not, the loss is doubled: the minority loses its freedom of expression, and the majority loses access to correction and critique, which is of great value and importance.

And let us add: By minorities we do not only refer to specific social or ethnic groups, but we also mean every less influential group within controversial questions discussed in public.


Now the students are ready to do the following-up group work



1 Read about the history of freedom of speech in, e.g., New World Encyclopedia
The quote is often credited to Voltaire, the French philosopher, but the origin is not quite clear,  
“Värna yttrandefriheten”, SOU 1983: 70, side 82.

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

An online manual on intercultural understanding, ethics and human rights to be used by teachers and students in journalism education. Read more.

Email : post@journalism-edu.org

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