The Need for Free 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/edition03/4461.htm)

Free speech is widely considered as a right, for example in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1) and the First Amendment to the US  Constitution.  People usually agree that it is a pre-requisite of good governance (2.1).  People have to be allowed to say what is important to them so that meaningful negotiation can take place, both within and between cultural groups, to encourage socially-acceptable behaviour and to refine its definition (4.4.3) – for everyone’s benefit.

Dialogue can be a route to mutual understanding and respect, and it can uncover ways in which different groups can co-exist without offending each other.  Suppressing free speech is damaging to pluralism because mutual understanding is impossible without discussion – but sensitivity is necessary.  The following two quotations from a Guardian article by Kenan Malik, Exploding the fatwa myths,  illustrate opposing attitudes:

“It is precisely because we live in a plural society that expression needs to be as free as possible.”

“’If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict’, the sociologist Tariq Modood has suggested, ‘They mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ But to limit such criticism is to limit the democratic process and the possibilities of social progress.”

The first and last sentences represent Malik’s position, which is consistent with a negotiated approach, but Tariq Modood’s note of caution argues for restraint.  Perhaps the right balance is to encourage constructive discussion between different groups, but only among people who have expressed a willingness to participate – and with a prior agreement to ban abusive language.