Freedom of speech – one of the so-called inalienable rights of a democracy. But what exactly does it mean? Obviously there is a difference between public and private free speech. It’s not very often that someone is going to interfere with what you say in the privacy of your own house. The real intent, therefore, is the guarantee of public expression.
What exactly is it that we are promised by our democratic legislations? In theory most democracies ensure their citizens the following: the right to criticize the political system and leaders, including those in power; the right to criticize corporate and public policies; and the right to criticize religious and political ideas.
These freedoms can be tempered and controlled by legislation and standards. For instance, in the United States there are laws that dictate what you can and cannot say about a person in writing in regards to their character. In Canada, while freedom of speech is guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, it is forbidden to write or disseminate information that is considered harmful to a people based on race, creed, religion, or sexual orientation.
Even more ambiguous are the laws governing what’s known as freedom of expression. What is considered acceptable for mass consumption in one country, or even jurisdiction within a country, is deemed contrary to another’s moral code. While most democratic countries do not place prior restrictions on the arts, outside of film, TV, and radio, they are all subject to prosecution if they are deemed to breach moral standards.
Regulatory bodies like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Canadian Radio and Television Council (CRTC) not only issue licenses to companies to operate a broadcast network, they regulate the nature of their content. If the content is deemed to breach community standards, those in contravention can be fined, or even have their licence revoked.
Although governments may limit a person’s right to say or write certain things publicly, whether in the interests of national security or the common good, the largest amount of censorship actually comes from the community itself. Some people may say that only a government is capable of censorship, because only they have the power to impose a blanket gag order or suppress information.
What do you call a school board decision to pull books from its curriculum because pressure groups have forced them to if not censorship? When a privately run ratings tribunal can tell a movie company to remove scenes from a movie or face not being able to show it to a wide audience, is that not censorship? When a pressure group organizes a boycott of an advertiser’s product because they don’t like what is being said on a television show that they sponsor and succeed in having it taken off the air, is that not censorship?
When society prohibits the uttering of unpopular thoughts due to the weight of popular opinion, is that another form of denial of free speech? “Freedom of speech which is limited to freedom to say whatever a majority of the Pennsylvania legislature agrees with is not real freedom of speech” was how Rep. Mark B. Cohen put it in an argument in the state legislature.
In his play, Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen details how community opinion will itself act as a form of censorship. Through ostracizing the person who voices an opinon that goes against the will of the communinty, they succeed in opressing free speech. In modern terms it would be the equivalent of a community shutting up the person who speaks out against the factory that employs the majority of the town’s population while simultaneously being the cause of birth defects.
Unpopular opinions have a way of not being heard by the public at large, either through being ignored by the mainstream press, or being dismissed by vague appeals to emotions. Labeling dissent as unpatriotic or heretical is to denigrate that opinion to the point of it being ignored. As a means of censorship it is as effective as legislation.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who believe that free speech gives them the right to propagate hatred. Whether it’s because of some personal philosophy or because their God tells them to, they think they should have the right to proclaim that certain types of people, for reasons of race, religion, or sexual orientation, are either inferior or evil.
What is interesting is that these same people are also the ones who raise the most fuss about people voicing opinions that run contrary to either their beliefs or moral code. For example, certain Christian sects say they should have the right to teach that homosexuality is evil and against the wishes of their God, but people should not be allowed to teach that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality.
There are people who argue that an open and democratic society can allow people to incite hatred because the opposing views will also be heard, and be able to counter the argument. But does not a democratic society have the responsibility to ensure all of its citizens are treated equally?
The twentieth century was full of examples of ethnic groups being scapegoated by societies to the point of extermination. From the genocide of Armenians, Jews, Gypsies, Tutus, and other ethnic minorities, the segregation of blacks in South Africa and the southern United States, and our current dehuamnization of Muslims, the past hundred years have been full of examples where hate speech has been used to deny people what we consider basic human rights.
Look back at the three aspects that constitute free speech at the beginning of this post. Can you see anything that says you have the right to either refer to one group of people as inferior to another, or incite hatred against them? The guarantee of free speech ensures free and open debate on issues, ideas, and policy. It does not give you the right to attack someone for what they are.
The United States of America is rightly proud of being one of the world’s earliest democracies in the modern era. Their constitution has been the template for many similar documents. The ideals it espouses within the Bill Of Rights have long served as beacons of hope to oppressed peoples around the world. It has achieved iconic stature.
Unfortunately its that very status as an icon that allows people to abuse the privileges it enshrines. Simply citing the First Amendment to the American Bill of Rights as if it were engraved in stone should not give anyone the right to espouse hatred. Yes, I know it says that congress “shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech”, but doesn’t Amendment Nine say that “The Bill of Rights does not take away any right held by the people under the Constitution”?
In the American Declaration of Independence, does it not declare “All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? If you allow people to preach hatred against one segment of society, what are you doing to promote their liberty or their freedom to pursue happiness?
While individuals who are defamed in public have recourse to the courts for restitution, what protections are offered to minorities who find themselves on the receiving end of public vilification? Can homosexuals as a group take conservative Christians who preach that their way of life is evil to court and sue them for defamation of character like a movie star takes the National Inquirer to court for telling lies about them?
What does that say about a society where it is up to the victims of hatred that they are placed in this position? How does that fit in with “All men are created equal”? I don’t belive it does.
When Canada passed its Charter of Rights and Freedoms with the intent of enshrining the same qualities that were established by the American Bill of Rights and Constitution, anti-hate legislation was passed to safeguard against that abuse. The legislation included the caveat that if a statement could be proved true, it would not be considered as hate or illegal.
Deomocracy and freedom of speech seem to be synonymous in the minds of most people. But what exactly freedom of speech should entail, or does entail, is far from cut and dried. How much freedom can a government actually guarantee its people, when it allows societal forces to dictate means of expression? Should freedom of speech come at the expense of inciting hatred towards other people? How free is speech when certain segments of society have access to mass comunication tools, allowing them to disseminate their views, while others are shut out?
The problem that we face is that there is no consent amongst us as a society as to what constitutes free speech. Even though all of us claim it is one our most valued treasures, none of us are quite sure what limitations should be placed on expression. Should a majority’s moral standards be allowed to set the benchmark, allowing the potential for abuse? Or should government outline exactly what is meant by freedom of speech and expression, allowing for the possibility of restrictive measures?
What needs to happen is that the idea of free speech has to be relieved of its iconic status. It needs to be seen within the context of our society, with all of its diversity. We can no longer take it for granted that it means we are free to say whatever we want about who ever we wish whenever we feel like it. That approach is as undemocratic as curtailing free speech completely.