Should we have an absolute freedom of speech?

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March 2011

When everyone agrees with a proposition, you have to fear that it is meaningless. Freedom of speech is a case in point. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by almost every country, guarantees freedom of expression.

The problems are in the fine print because even the covenant limits the scope of this right. Restrictions are possible for the respect of the rights or reputations of others as well as for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals.

So it is easy to be for free speech in principle. It is far less obvious what this will mean in practice.

Some exceptions to free speech are straightforward. Nobody should have the right to cause a mass panic by crying ”fire” in a packed theatre. But beyond that?

There are numerous cases where it is not so clear to determine where the balance should lie between the protection of free speech and the protection of other rights.

Take advertising, for example. Free speech does not only apply to political opinions but to commercial ones as well. Nevertheless, we would probably agree that especially advertising aimed at young children needs limits.

That’s fair enough. But what about advertising to adults? In opinion polls, most people say they are personally never conned by advertising. However, the very same people also believe that others regularly fall for misleading ads and therefore strict regulations were necessary.

It’s the same story with political speech. In some countries there are limitations on political opinions. In parts of Europe Holocaust denial is illegal. In Turkey a ”denigration of the Turkish nation” can land you in jail.

You would only support such restrictions on free speech if you believed that society could not handle it. However, in a society in which we all regularly have to make myriad decisions, why should we not also be able to decide how to respond to unpleasant or objectionable statements? Instead of banning them, we might choose to ignore or ridicule them.

Realistically, freedom of speech cannot be limitless. Yet instead of relying on laws, perhaps we should trust common sense and civil society.

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