5.4.5 The Legal Right to Freedom of Speech

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/545.htm)

Freedom of speech is regarded as being of prime importance in Western culture.  It is protected by the First Amendment of the American Constitution, for example:

“Congress shall make no law … 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”.

As discussed in the next chapter (6.8.3), freedom of speech is essential to the working of any political system – particularly in a democracy.  The American founding fathers wanted to ensure that the government could not become an oppressor of the people by stopping them from expressing dissent (the British colonial government having been seen as dictatorial).

In view of the importance of free speech, it is worth asking whether there should be any limitations to it – but several are listed in The British Human Rights Act 1998:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

No society allows anybody to say whatever they please without regard to the truth or to potential adverse consequences.  It is appropriate to be reluctant to use the law to limit free speech – but the British list above points to several possible justifications, some of which are examined below in separate sub-sections:

  • It is self-consistent for the law to prohibit incitement to any act which would be illegal (5.4.5.1).
  • Some limits to free speech might be advisable to maintain political stability (5.4.5.2), though this is highly contentious.
  • The rights of others should be protected (5.4.5.3).
  • It is possible to justify banning various kinds of lying (5.4.5.4).

There is a further need to limit free speech in order to avoid ethnic conflict.  This topic is so important and wide-ranging that it is the subject of a separate section (5.4.6).

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