(Originally posted: 10 Dec 2016 on the old blog)
Being a regular facebooker, I’ve seen all sorts of arguments, and responses to arguments. One that bothers me a great deal is this idea of people thinking that they can say what they want without social repercussions because of Freedom of Speech.
Now, whenever someone says this, I think of the various movie memes when a character says “I do not think you know what that word means”.
In general terms, Freedom of Speech is the right of every person in that particular country to say what they wish (within legal reasonableness), without fear of death, attack or some other sanctions from the government.
Freedom of Speech and Expression is covered in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and under this Article 19 is a suggestion of limitations to the Freedom of Speech: Justifications for such include the harm principle, proposed by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty, which suggests that: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Wiki)
Now, different governments apply the legal definitions and consequences of Freedom of Speech, slightly differently (and I’m not knowledgeable enough in international law to go into specifics). But they all come down to the idea that freedom is where one can say what one wishes (within reason) without fear of punishment from the government. No where that I’ve seen does this Right extend to one person being allowed to speak their mind, while blocking the right of other people who disagree with them to verbalise their disagreement.
The idea of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is to make everyone as absolutely equal as possible. So that one person doesn’t have more rights to being human than someone else. So, Freedom of Speech is about everyone being allowed to speak without sanctions from their government, and that right protects not just one opinion but all opinions (within legal reasonableness). What that really means is that whether you and I disagree about an issue, we both have the right to express our opinions without the government chucking either of us in jail. Which means, if I disagree with you, the law protects not only your right to speak, but mine also. So, when we all argue on the internet, and paratroopers don’t break into our houses and to arrest us, what we’re actually doing is practising Freedom of Speech.
And while I can certainly understand why anyone would wish that there were laws against people expressing opinions that we don’t like, in order to protect our own rights to free speech, we also have to protect the rights of those we disagree with for it to truly be a Universal Human Right.
In The Friends of Voltaire, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
So, next time you get annoyed when someone disagrees with you, try and remember that they’re not breaching YOUR Freedom of Speech, but actually practising their own.