>Is ‘freedom of speech’ a natural right?

>The last few years have seen the words “freedom of speech” bandied around as if it were the most common phrase in the world. People fall on both sides of the debate in every country around the world.

Yet some journalists claim that the majority of people don’t even understand what ‘freedom of speech’ means. A Canadian journalist (Marni Soupcoff) published an article today saying that the majority of Canadians just “don’t get” freedom of speech.

What does ‘freedom of speech’ mean to you and to what extent should it be supported?


  • >I'm too much of a legal mind to believe in natural rights. Rights to anything exist because there is a corresponding law preventing somebody else infringing that right and thus guaranteeing you it. Such laws (any laws outside the sciences) are human artifices and there is therefore no such thing as a 'natural right'.Should 'freedom of speech' be enshrined in any good legal system, however unnatural? Yes.It should only be infringed to protect another individual, or group of individuals, person, reputation or material welfare. Hence, incitement to violence or libel are not included under freedom of speech; nor is purjury (it perverts or prevents justice to another). It should not go any further than these bounds.Freedom of speech should include:*The right to insult and offend (up to, but not including, the point where harm is apprehended by another)*The right to speak unpalatable or unpopular opinions*The right to speak hateful and unpleasant things (including racial, homophobic, sexist or any other kind of discriminatory language – in this, freedom of speech should be absolute than freedom of action). *The right to belong to or profess support for any political party or pressure group (policemen, teachers, judges and whoever else should be free to be a BNP member, for example)*The write to publish any non-libellous opinion in any language you see fit.Obviously, there are certain limitations to this. Such freedom of speech should not extend to dealing with minors. This should extend to television watersheds and such. It is right and proper that what they hear and the information they receive is sensibly controlled and censored. It is also important to note that freedom of speech is greater than freedom of action. While it ought to be (legally) acceptable for any individual to hold and express racist sentiments, it ought not be acceptable for them to convert such sentiments into discriminatory, violent or any other such illegal action. It is also appropriate that companies may choose to limit the language acceptable for use by employees in the public eye, but this should fall under the category of private contract, not public law, and certainly does not necessitate a blanket ban such as that currently in force of BNP members in the UK police force. For a police commisioner to make racist comments in public might, for his employers, be a matter of grave misconduct; for a police officer (or indeed, a police commisioner) to be a member of a legal political party, regardless of its views in so far as they do not illegally affect his actions, is none of anybody else's business.Beyond such caveats and provisos, however, freedom of speech should be nurtured and protected. In so far as it does not materially or physically harm any person of majority, speech should be utterly free in the eyes of the state. For the rationale behind this, I would offer nothing more than a pathetically ineloquent parroting of Chapter II of On Liberty, so here it is: http://www.utilitarianism.com/ol/two.html

  • >Great discussion document. Especially with the advent of twitter and blogs, there is no restriction on freedom of speech, and we don't always have conscience when it comes to insults and tone of expressions of disapproval. It follows people have to develop a thicker skin, especially if they are in the public eye, and have more chance of electronic tomatoes thrown at them.

  • >Thanks to Paradigm Options with regards to the above comment. Technology is certainly having a huge impact upon freedom of speech. I wouldn't go so far as to say there is complete freedom, as people are removed from websites for saying certain things, and can be tried as criminals for some things. However I take your point that even if something illegal was said it would be very hard to track down and get the author held responsible.Ross, I agree that it is difficult to define rights as in anyway natural. However I want to build on your reasoning. Just because some rights require an enfringment of other rights does not mean they cannot be treated as 'natural'. The reason I do not think they should be treated as natural rights is because I have issue with the useage of the word natural. It is usually used to mean something not influenced by humanity. Yet to have a human right neccessitates a human. And there is something beyond that meaning anyway. How can we say that reality is natural without admitting that a fundamental aspect of that reality is humanity's existence? We are not special or chosen by God. If we destroy our habitat then it is because of particular traits that have evolved in a natural way, in a naturally evolving species.Yet although the freedom of speech cannot be a naturally ocurring right in nature (some people are born without speech, and the fact that some humans kill others for what they say is natural in that it occurs) it should be something that is enforced as a natural right within a state. The tricky bit, as Ross pointed out, is in deciding where one person's freedom starts trampling the freedoms of another. In general I agree with the points made. However I disagree slightly in that I think any argument should be able to be made as long as it has logic, even if that argument is that every minor should be killed. The reason why I think this should be allowed is so that others can destroy the argument and stop more people being convinced by it. This does not mean anyone should be able to say anything. No one should be able to say what they like simply because they think it. If someone does not like Jews they should not be allowed to publicly declare their support for a new holocaust based solely on that dislike. However, if that person believes he/she has some evidence or logical argument as to why Jews really are at fault for the world's problems, and that a holocaust would solve this, then they should be allowed to speak. Once again, the reason is that if this person acts underground they are more likely to convince others. Whereas if they say it on BBC television there will be someone a great deal cleverer destroying their argument within 30 seconds.Also, Ross says that things such as libel (a false, damaging statement/representation) should not be allowed. This is the current view under British law. But many, if not most Lawyers today feel that British Libel Law needs reform. This is to do with both how libel cases are defined, and how such laws are enforced. For example UK libel law requires the person who made the statement to prove it. As such if you right a book with a number of things commonly percieved to be fact, and yet someone says what you have written is damaging, the entire burden is on you to prove what you have said. Even if what you said is true, if you are unable to prove it you lose. There have been a huge number of cases where people are sued huge amounts for something that barely affects the UK. For instance a few years ago an American author, who had only sold about 10 copies in the UK, was sued under British Libel Law.So freedom of thought for all, but freedom of speech only in so far as it is either justified and/or doesn't negatively impact upon society's happiness. However when we get to enforcement it gets trickier.

  • >"No one should be able to say what they like simply because they think it. If someone does not like Jews they should not be allowed to publicly declare their support for a new holocaust based solely on that dislike. However, if that person believes he/she has some evidence or logical argument as to why Jews really are at fault for the world's problems, and that a holocaust would solve this, then they should be allowed to speak. Once again, the reason is that if this person acts underground they are more likely to convince others."I disagree. I thyink that people should be free to say exactly what they think and hang logic. Freedom with restrictions is not freedom at all, for anyone, and even my slightly wider definition of free speech is not really 'free'. Human expression should be as free and unrestricted as is possible bearing in mind the quite proper safeguarding of others' rights and liberties.And would such a restriction – confining free speech to 'logic' – safeguard anyone's liberties any further? Not a jot. In the first place, you argue that if a person has 'evidence' of an international Jewish conspiracy or whatever and that that would justify a Holocaust then the argument is 'logical'. That's not really logic, it just necessitates a thinly-evidenced argument. More importantly, racial theorists and other hateful thinkers throughout history have offered pretty good – even 'logical' arguments – for their hateful opinions and they haven't always been dismantled by superior intellect, at least not in the crucial arena of public opinion and even then not until it was much too late. Black men shouldn't be allowed near our women because of their bestial sexual appetite, Jesus hates homosexuals and the Bible says so, Jews kill Christian babies, immigrants are stealing our easy jobs, blacks are natural slaves etc, etc all sentiments which, by your definition, offer 'logical' argument and which were not dismantled by superior intellect, even in climates of free speech, and did not reduce the suffering of so many millions regarded as inferior under such arguments one iota; it might have ended suffering – as in the slave trade and the abolition of slavery in the Americas – but not until it was much, much too late.Ultimately, like the scene in the West Wing where Jed Bartlett flays that evangelical shock jock with quotes from the Biblical law books to complete torpedo her homophobic arguments, there are and will be bright people who can make a difference in individual instances. Our world is not filled with Jed Bartletts or even Rob Battisons and, unfortunately, most people will transform hateful sentiments into hateful actions with or without the logic and, actually, preferably with it as it least that gives them some justification for hating the blacks and the gays and the muslims rather than just irrational dislike.That's what I think anyway.

  • >I do take your point on libel as well. I think it needs to be qualified as speech that materially damages a person (i.e. loss of family through revelations of an affair, career and professional reputation etc.) rather than be as wide ranging as it is. Much like in areas of civil area, I think there should be some onus on the plaintiff to prove such damage.However, it is right and proper that the accused must prove the truth in their statements.

  • >I think we misunderstood each other a bit. I thought I was being more in favour of free speech than you, lol. My fault though. I wasn't very clear (slightly concussed from yesterday; I hit my head on the corner of my bedside table).Ok first things first I did not mean that everything said has to be logical. I'm perfectly fine with someone acting like an idiot on tv if it gets ratings and entertains people. And of course we also need to distinguish between private and public freedoms. I do think the distinction needs to be made because what you say to your family and friends is of course completely free. What I was trying to cover was a situation like this:Day 1: Person X issues a tv statement calling for a new holocaustDay 2: Person Y destroys person X's entire argument.Day 3: Person X is embarrased about his earlier humiliation but decides to keep spreading the message anyway because he decides too much work has gone in to give up.Day 4: Person X again issues the statement, simply without any backing argument.Month 2: Everyone calling for him to stop simply hardens the resolve of his supporters, creating a theory that there is a huge 'conspiracy' trying to stop them speaking.Month 3: Group identities harden on both sides of the argument to the point where they deem it necessary to arm themselves. etc etc.Now it could be argued that we would simply stop them arming. But lets face it where there's a will there's a way. It now takes the average person no more than 6 minutes to track down someone who's prepared to supply them with arms. And even if we were able to stop them arming violence may occur. So what I was saying was that in circumstances like these the government should be able to step in and stop person X after any sense of reason was completely demolished by person Y (I'm talking about the highest public levels like television, radio, magazines and newspapers, not speaking out in local sources). The problem is of course in trying to find where the line lies between advocation of a viewpoint, and something which is both devoid of logic, and could also harm others. This is why we either need to accept a legal state of affairs that will sometimes call the wrong shots, or give the courts powers to decide, in which case some people will think the calls were wrong.continued…

  • Nothing in nature, so far as we can perceive it and quantify it, is infinite. In other words, nature has limits. Absolute Zero like the speed of light cannot be “inflated” or “deflated” to some other measurable value. You can digress into relativity and frames of reference if you wish, but a frame of reference still has limits.
    Biological entities like human beings have obvious natural limits. They cannot manipulate entropy to achieve immortality.
    But humans readily accept limits that are far more constrained that those of physical reality.
    Consider limits on symbolic expression. How does a symbol endanger anyone’s life? Can these squiggles on a video display jump off the page and suffocate you? Nonetheless, people do act “as if” symbols are tangible objects capable of harming their physical existence. Symbols can evoke emotions. Emotions do affect people physiologically. But emotions are a response generated from learning within us, the symbols have no occult power themselves to make anyone feel anything beyond perhaps a minimal curiosity at symmetry and asymmetry.
    So, why is unfettered symbolic expression the source of fear, disgust and violence? Does the symbol “stick” make you fear being bashed? What about the symbol “twat”? It’s obviously a chain of associations that symbols evoke and not the squiggles themselves. But you, not the squiggles, are the source of that chain of associations we call meaning.
    The urge to censor is primarily in the brain of the censor and it is within you because you were taught it.
    Freedom of expression is about making and changing symbols and the result is the core of what we call civilization. Suppression of symbolic expression is the core of savagery. The censor is a timid wimpy wantabe murderer.

  • Hi Frank,
    Thanks for your comment. It’s very well put! And your comment “Nothing in nature, so far as we can perceive it and quantify it, is infinite” really got me thinking. My immediate reaction was to think about what nature actually is. If we define nature as being that which is natural and exists, then can we not perceive and quantify the codes behind nature? The code which governs nature i.e. mathematics, may be abstract; but our minds can quantify it, perceive it, and multiply or divide within it an infinite number of times. And given that we, as a natural component of reality, can realise this information; is not this information also a part of nature?

    However, in the point you are making with regards to human limitations your are precisely right. It is a very well summarised point, especially seeing as our ability to perceive even mathematics is limited. Furthermore, the point has some interesting implications. But one of these is unfortunately that our ability to act without enfringing upon the liberties of others is also limited, by, as you say, the internal learning and emotions of other affected persons.

    This is why I agree with Locke’s criticism of Hobbes and Filmer:
    “Freedom is not as Sir Robert Filmer defines it: ‘A liberty for everyone to do what he likes, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied by any laws.’ Freedom is constrained by laws in both the state of nature and political society. Freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature. Freedom of people under government is to be under no restraint apart from standing rules to live by that are common to everyone in the society and made by the lawmaking power established in it. Persons have a right or liberty to (1) follow their own will in all things that the law has not prohibited and (2) not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, and arbitrary wills of others.”

    The major problems therefore are:
    . In terms of expression the individual and the group must determine what is desirable according to their own internal rules, which should include an outward view i.e. the laws, and potential negative impacts on others should be taken into account.
    . The legislators must determine where and when expression infringes too greatly on the liberty and freedom of others, and enact laws that apply to all.
    . The courts must determine how these laws are to be interpreted in individual cases, and also have a duty to inform the legislators where ambiguities exist, so that the legislators can try and eliminate them.

  • Pingback: Does Everyone Deserve Freedom? | Battison's Blog

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