6.8.3.2 Freedom of Speech in Politics

(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/edition03/6832.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’ (6.4.2.1).

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, in chapter 2 of his book On Liberty, 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 (5.4.1.3).

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’).  The public expects a government to restore order, but not to use disproportionate force, if demonstrations become violent.  The risks involved in allowing protest have to be compared to the risks of fuelling opposition by suppressing free speech.  As reported by the BBC on 23 December 2017, the Tiananmen Square protest death toll ‘was 10,000’; that protest took place in Beijing in June 1989 (when fewer deaths were reported), yet it is still talked about and is politically sensitive.

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 (4.4.6.5).  Societies vary in the framework they adopt, which is affected by their political systems and their history.

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