5.4.5 The Legal Right to Freedom of Speech
Freedom of speech is regarded as being of prime importance in Western culture. It is protected by the First Amendment to 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. The law should be reluctant 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 (18.104.22.168).
● National security must be protected, but it is unacceptable to suppress dissent in a democracy (22.214.171.124). An authoritarian government might take a different view, in the interests of political stability.
● The rights of others should be protected (126.96.36.199). Intimidation and online abuse, intended to deter others from expressing their views, is an infringement of their rights.
● It is possible to justify banning various kinds of lying, such as perjury and libel, but it is hard to ban fake news without using State censorship – which might be used to suppress dissent (188.8.131.52).
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).
This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books. An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/545.htm.