(The latest version of this page is at Pattern Descriptions. An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/6832.htm)
Freedom of speech is seen as important for most people, and it is a fundamental requirement for responsive governance. It is included as Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1). It is guaranteed by law in many countries – for example in the First Amendment of the American Constitution (5.4.5). It applies to all forms of communication, including the peaceful protest demonstrations which form part of ‘people-power’ (22.214.171.124).
A government is not threatened by robust debate of political issues:
· Debate is a way of working out what is best for everybody; it is a form of negotiation. John Stuart Mill argued persuasively for the free exchange of views, on the grounds that this has the effect of strengthening good arguments and overturning bad ones.
· If someone has raised an issue in a public forum, such as the media or the Internet, there is a ready-made interested audience for the debate. This gives the government a platform to explain its policies.
· Governments should often be able to win arguments because they have access to considerable resources.
· People would feel no need to overthrow a government which is losing an argument but which then offers a process for change.
· Protesters should expect to face some consequences if they break the law, but judges might choose to be lenient towards those who are trying to help society as a whole. The law might then be changed in response to the pressure (126.96.36.199).
Open debate is healthier, and a more realistic policy, than trying to suppress dissent. The Internet and social media ensure that debate will happen anyway, so it is safer for the government to participate and to ensure that its views are properly represented. A government which tries to suppress free speech loses legitimacy by doing so – adding to the opposition’s arguments.
Free speech should include a right to protest, so that people can convey the strength of their feelings (and ‘let off steam’). If there is violence when demonstrations get out of hand – as has often happened recently – the public expects a government to restore order, but not to use disproportionate force. The risks involved in allowing protest have to be compared to the risks of fuelling opposition by suppressing free speech.
Given that free speech is so important in enabling public discussion of governance issues, it is tempting to adopt the simple precept that there should be no limits on it. In practice, though, there have to be some legal constraints (5.4.5 and 5.4.6) and there is a strong moral argument for exercising some self-restraint (188.8.131.52). Societies vary in the framework they adopt, which is affected by their political systems and their history.
© PatternsofPower.org, 2014
 John Stuart Mill's views on free speech are contained in chapter 2 of his book On Liberty, which was published in 1859; it was available in May 2014 at http://www.utilitarianism.com/ol/two.html. Nigel Warburton wrote a brief summary of Mill's argument in an article entitled The price of dangerous talk, which was published in the February 2010 edition of Prospect Magazine and was available in May 2014 at http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/2010/01/everyday-philosophy-6/.