Freedom of expression

‘If the history of civilisation has any lesson to teach it is this: there is one supreme condition of mental and moral progress which it is completely within the power of man himself to secure, and that is the perfect liberty of thought and discussion. The establishment of this liberty may be considered the most valuable achievement of modern civilization, and as a condition of social progress it should be deemed fundamental.’

John Bagnell Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought

We have already explored the humanist support for the freedom of religion and belief. Another freedom typically defended by humanists is the freedom of expression. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), for example, campaigns against blasphemy laws that still exist in many countries around the world and restrict people’s freedom to express their beliefs without fear of punishment or, in some countries, death.

John Stuart Mill highlighted two key features about human beings to defend the need for freedom of expression. Firstly, we sometimes make mistakes. Secondly, we are able to correct them. The only way to correct our false beliefs is through access to contradictory ideas and arguments, and the possibility of critical discussion. How can we ever improve our opinions and understanding if we are unable to encounter opposing beliefs, or allow others to expose our errors?

‘If a forbidden opinion is true, we lose the opportunity to learn of its truth. If a forbidden opinion is false, we lose the opportunity to remind ourselves why it is false.’

Brendan Larvor, Aspects of Humanism course

Disagreement can be productive. Some of the most important ideas in human history caused offence in their time. What would the world be like if the writings of Galileo, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Charles Darwin had never seen the light of day? Censorship, even of bad ideas, can lead to negative consequences. Bad attitudes and poorly-reasoned arguments, when driven underground, can fester. Often the best way of handling bad ideas is to allow them space in the public arena so that they can be challenged and defeated by better ideas. The best way to deal with bad free expression is better free expression.

The opponent of free speech may highlight the fact that words can hurt us. This is true. We do not need to be physically injured to be harmed. Speech (including blasphemy, for example) can be offensive and upsetting. Didn’t Mill say that we can restrict people’s freedom in cases where they may cause harm to others? Is this not therefore a case where the harm principle applies?

Some people may say that they accept reasonable criticism of their views, but that they object to their views being ridiculed or to offensive treatment of their beliefs. That, they might say, is harmful. The problem, however, is this: who decides what is and is not offensive? Any powerful criticism can be considered harmful. In fact, all criticism can be. Both the religious and the non-religious hold deeply-ingrained beliefs, both are equally open to ridicule and offence. Any censorship law that attempted to please everyone would be overly restrictive. If we ban all speech that anyone might consider offensive, how much conversation would be left? On the other hand, any law that attempted to define what was acceptable and what was not would be arbitrary. Mill worried that such arbitrariness would be exploited by the powerful.

Some say that we should not forbid opinions that might cause offense, but that it is legitimate to deny people the freedom to incite hatred and violence, sometimes described as ‘hate speech’. They will defend censorship in certain cases on public order grounds. However, here again, there is room for debate. Is it possible to easily define which kind of speech actively promotes acts of aggression towards other human beings?

Of course, accepting the value of freedom of expression does not imply that all speech is acceptable, just that we should not restrict it. It does not mean that such speech cannot be criticised or challenged by others, or described as offensive or untrue. But it is not the role of the state to say what is and is not allowed.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the harm principle says that governments can restrict our freedoms to prevent harm to others, but it does not say that they must always do this. We should perhaps all accept that we have no human right to not be offended. Sometimes, having our feelings hurt is the price we must pay for living in a free society.

‘The best we can do is to conduct these debates in such a way that the harm they cause is neither gratuitous nor vindictive.’

Brendan Larvor, Aspects of Humanism course

Question: Should any kind of speech be banned by the state?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK