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Freedom of speech: What does it mean and why is it important?

In this article, we discuss what freedom of speech really means, why it matters and how it relates to censorship and cancel culture.

Freedom of speech

By Rhiannon Wardle

It is pretty widely accepted that free speech is an essential part of a democratic society, and should be upheld to some degree. But the real question lies in how far we take it. While some people believe that freedom of speech should be upheld at all costs, others believe that it can be an excuse for saying harmful things without reprimand.

In order to clarify the arguments surrounding free speech, we’ve written this article about where it originates from, how it differs around the world, how it benefits society, and what some of its limitations are. This is by no means a formal guide to the laws surrounding free speech, but rather an exploration of different perspectives around free speech.

What is the definition of free speech?

There are a number of varying definitions of free speech, but at its core, it’s about the legal right to express or seek out ideas and opinions freely without fear of censorship or legal action. Freedom of speech is a part of freedom of expression, which means that individuals have the right to express themselves in whatever way they wish.

Is free speech a human right?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created in 1948 by representatives of 50 states from the United Nations. They were created in response to the Second World War, as a way of trying to prevent such a wide-scale conflict from ever happening again.

Thirty human rights were created, and they were designed to belong to everyone in the world so that no human being would be without rights. Article 18 and 19 are the rights most closely related to freedom of speech. While article 18 states that everyone has the freedom to believe whatever they want, and practice their beliefs (including religion), article 19 states that everyone has the right to express their opinions freely, in whichever way they want.

These human rights then formed the basis for different human rights laws across the world, including article 10 of the human rights act in the UK. This article grants individuals freedom of expression without interference, but also states that there are some conditions that may mean this freedom will be interrogated, such as in the event of a national security risk.

Does freedom of speech mean you can say anything?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that the specific law will depend on the country you’re in, but generally, there will always be exceptions to the rule. For example, in the UK’s article 10, the law states that public authorities can restrict the right to free speech if:

  • They are worried about national security or public safety
  • They want to prevent disorder or crime
  • They feel it will protect health or morals
  • They want to protect the rights and reputations of others
  • They are protecting confidential information
  • They need to maintain the authority and impartiality of judges.

What free speech means around the world

As we previously explained, freedom of speech is a universal human right, but different countries interpret it differently in their laws. We can get an idea about different attitudes to free speech by looking at the citizens of different countries, in studies such as the one done by Pew Research Centre in 2015

In this study, the researchers surveyed respondents from 38 different countries about their attitudes towards freedom of expression. While the U.S. unsurprisingly came out as the most supportive of free speech, other countries with a high level of support included Mexico, Venezuela, Canada and Australia. 

Some examples of countries with low levels of support for freedom of expression included Senegal, Burkina Faso, Jordan, Pakistan, and Ukraine. This research demonstrates that the principle of free speech is not a ‘one size fits all’ concept, and depends a lot on the constitution and culture of the country in question. 

What are first amendment rights in the U.S.?

You’ve probably heard people refer to their first amendment rights in America, since freedom of speech is often considered a fundamental part of being an American. This law guarantees freedoms related to religion, expression, assembly and petitioning, and allows individuals to assemble and speak freely. The amendment actually states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The study we discussed earlier by Pew Research Centre demonstrated just how much Americans care about their first amendment rights. They found that Americans were some of the most supportive citizens of free speech, freedom of the press, and the right to use the internet without government censorship. In addition, they discovered that Americans were more tolerant of offensive language than other nationalities.

However, it is interesting to consider that the U.S. is ranked at 44 out of 180 countries when ranked in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index

Why is freedom of speech important?

There are so many reasons why freedom of speech is important. Of course, the biggest reason is that freedom is paramount in a democracy. If we cannot speak freely, it often means that our liberties are being restricted in some way. However, it’s a little more complicated than that, so we took a look at our open step about freedom of expression by Humanists UK. 

One thing that’s highlighted in our open step is that all humans make mistakes, and somehow we learn to correct them. The way that we enrich or change our beliefs and opinions is through listening to contradictory arguments. Critical discussion is a fundamental part of the human learning experience, and critical discussions would not exist without people being able to express opposing beliefs.

In this way, disagreements can be extremely productive. Also, Humanists UK point out that causing offence is not always a bad thing. Many ideas from history caused offence at the time, but now they are considered important and revolutionary – take Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Darwin, for example. 

In addition, even if false arguments and bad attitudes are pushed down, they don’t necessarily go away. Instead, they can evolve into something more sinister, as people may only seek out those with a similar opinion to themselves. This kind of behaviour creates an echo chamber, where you only hear opinions that support your own, and there is no critical discourse. Alternatively, free expression allows for ideas to be challenged, changed, and also better understood.

What are the limits of freedom of speech?

We already discussed some of the reasons why a government might restrict the right to freedom of expression, so we already know that it has some limitations. Our open step from the University of Bristol explores the slightly different limitations stated in South Africa, which restricts ‘advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion’.

However, it is also worth mentioning that freedom of speech and expression has limitations depending on the specific context you’re in. For example, even though it is your human right to express yourself freely, doing so at work in a way that insults or negatively affects your boss or colleagues could impact your career. Essentially, it’s often inappropriate to speak freely if it infringes on someone else’s freedoms.

In a similar vein, experts from the University of Oslo and the Scholars at Risk Network explore the challenges and curbs to academic free speech which can occur in academic environments, including those where human rights or legal violations may not be a factor. You can find out more about this in our Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters course. 

Does freedom of speech apply to digital platforms?

A lot of the time, we hear about controversial opinions and statements that people have made via the internet. This is why it’s important to evaluate the role of digital platforms and social media in the debate on freedom of speech.

In our open step on freedom of speech and the internet, experts from the University of Bristol discuss how the internet has been blamed by some for enabling terrorism and extremism. This is because they are accused of providing a platform for people to promote their damaging views, and even plan attacks. 

In this way, digital platforms very much have a part to play in the free speech debate, as ultimately they must try to ensure that dangerous activity is not taking place on their platforms. However, as Pier Luigi Parcu explains in our open step on fake news, digital platforms don’t like to assume editorial responsibility for the dangerous content that exists on their sites. 

There are rare exceptions to this, such as when Twitter banned Donald Trump recently, but a bill was approved soon after that now prevents social media companies from “deplatforming” politicians this way.

This general lack of assumption of responsibility means that digital platforms don’t filter information like other media do, leaving a lot of room for fake news, unsubstantiated opinions, and even dangerous ideas. The problem is that filtering out this information would be an issue of freedom of expression, so it becomes very difficult for digital platforms to find middle ground. 

Lately, however, Facebook and Twitter have been trying to screen for fake news, which is explained in more detail in this Forbes article. The writer, Bernard Marr, states “Facebook unveiled a raft of measures designed to help keep users safe from misinformation, as well as exploitative practices. It deployed algorithms to look for false or sensationalist claims made in advertising”.

Is the Internet a public forum?

One of the reasons it‘s so difficult to police the internet is because it’s a kind of public forum. As described by professors at the University of Bristol in our open step about free speech and the internet, the internet provides a platform for those otherwise denied a voice. 

Rather than just media companies and journalists being the information providers, we are offered perspectives from ordinary citizens. This can be incredibly powerful in certain instances, such as when people are experiencing abuses of power by their government, police, or authorities. The power of storytelling online cannot be underestimated.

However, the internet also encourages the free sharing of information and opinions in more ordinary circumstances – take Wikipedia, for example, which is written, edited and checked by anyone who wants to contribute. This is an example of moderation being carried out by ordinary people instead of the state. The same can be said for forums such as Reddit.

Freedom of speech vs. hate speech

One of the most widely discussed critiques of unlimited free speech is that it can condone and amplify hate speech. Hate speech can be defined as speech that is abusive and threatening towards a certain group of people, generally based on prejudices related to race, gender, sexuality, religion, or disability. 

Some might ask, since people should be allowed to speak their minds and voice all opinions, why can’t they simply express their dislike for certain things? This is an argument often uttered by those in favour of complete freedom of speech, including hate speech. However, people may disagree with this, arguing that a clearer line should be drawn between stating dislike and inciting violence. If nothing is off-limits, where does it end?

Can free speech ever be an excuse for racism and other forms of discrimination?

In our open step about freedom of expression by Humanists UK, they discuss the difficulty in deciding what counts as offensive and what doesn’t. They ask, ‘if we ban all speech that anyone might consider offensive, how much conversation would be left?’ While it is true that offence is subjective, and depends hugely on your individual perspective, it could be argued that we have a duty to protect people against threats of harm and violence.

Even though a certain statement doesn’t offend you, it might still be offensive. In an open step by the European University Institute, Pier Luigi Parcu talks about the issue of hate speech online, saying “hate speech has become a common pattern of political propaganda, even in established democracies, targeting minorities, women, migrants, weaker elements of society, or simply the diversity of opinions. The phenomenon has been exacerbated by the relative anonymity that is allowed to the haters by the Internet.”

Does censorship violate freedom of speech?

Censorship is often talked about in relation to free speech because people feel that they are being unfairly censored online in violation of their rights. Censorship can be defined as the suppression of information, though it often relates to things like images, books, television, and other media. 

It can be argued that some forms of censorship are necessary – for example, websites that children regularly access might censor inappropriate images. However, the rules around censorship can be very hazy online, and censorship can even become oppressive in many circumstances. We go into more detail below.

The dangers of censorship

In our open step about censorship from the University of York, experts suggest that internet censorship is a direct threat to our freedom to access information and express ourselves. They state that the key issue is that there is no clear code of conduct on many digital platforms, meaning we rarely even know what they are restricting and blocking, or why. 

Take the case of model, Nyome Nicholas-Williams, on Instagram last year. A partially nude, non-explicit image of her that didn’t break any Instagram guidelines was repeatedly taken down. However, it is extremely easy to stumble across explicit nude images on Instagram, so we have to ask – why was Nyome censored?

The problem is, that platforms like Instagram operate on a case-by-case basis when it comes to nudity, leaving a lot of room for bias, discrimination, and unfair censorship.

On a different note entirely, we all know that censorship of information by the government can be extremely dangerous and damaging. Extreme censorship is often a feature of dictatorship – citizens are not given access to news, books, certain information, and instead are fed propaganda. This is a direct violation of their human rights.

Is cancel culture a form of censorship?

A very common societal phenomenon right now is cancel culture. Placing limitations on free speech via social or digital ostracisation is not a direct attack like censorship by the government or social media platforms, but can be an effective way of deplatforming an individual, group or corporation.  

Rather than actually stopping someone from expressing their views, cancel culture is a way for people to say that they’re not going to listen. Usually, cancel culture is a response to someone saying or doing something objectionable. It normally involves members of the public withdrawing their support from the cancelled person, but it can also involve trying to negatively impact the person’s career prospects.

For the reasons we’ve already discussed, it can be damaging to cancel people, because this means we are refusing to engage with them and create critical discourse. However, this really depends on the reasons why someone is being cancelled.

The important thing to remember is that asking someone to be accountable for their actions is not regarded as the same as cancel culture. A widely acknowledged view is that criticism of cancel culture should not be an excuse for not taking responsibility for damaging actions, just as the right to free speech should not be an excuse for spreading hatred.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, this has provided you with an interesting and informative overview of free speech. If you’re interested in learning more about political ideas surrounding democracy, you can try our Introduction to Politics ExpertTrack by the University of Kent.

While freedom of speech is an essential part of the world we live in and a fundamental human right, it can still be useful to think about its limitations. Being able to question society is a positive feature of democracy, and we believe that developing curiosity is an essential part of the human learning experience.

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