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When Words meet Executions: The Constraints of Free Speech

November 11, 2018

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Protecting Free Speech is Essential to American Freedom

 ADAM FAGEN VIA UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”

― Benjamin Franklin.

 

Free speech is understood as one of the basic pillars of democracy, and a right that is fundamental to any free society. A state cannot claim to be truly equal, just, or free, without the opportunity to express thought without fear of government repression. In principle, freedom of speech is a notion that should be have an intrinsic value. Nevertheless, it has become a highly debated topic in recent years. The reality is that freedom of speech is fundamental, yet also an unavoidable double-edged sword. There remains no coherent global (or even regional) understanding on this rights application. Even Europe and the United States have vastly different conceptions of free speech, and whether there should be limitations to it.

 

The debate often arises from the fact that the same protections that guarantee free speech necessarily allow hate speech and violent rhetoric. This double-edged sword is what has led many governments to seek to limit this freedom. While this position is not without logic, and the protection of those who are too often victims is undoubtedly necessary; state censorship of speech is a reality which paves the way for further oppression. The same logic that may allow hateful comments is also fundamental to allow activists to fight for positive change, protects people of oppressed minorities to share their stories, and allows free access to information. In the words of Bryant McGill, one must “not make the mistake of thinking that you have to agree with people and their beliefs to defend them from injustice.” 

 

Suppressing freedom of speech in any way implies that a government has ceased the right to determine what ideas should be suppressed. This is a dangerous conception to defend in itself, as we can never assure that a government will not abuse this power. Anything can be deemed sufficiently harmful to be suppressed if there is the will and power to do so. Freedom of speech remains fundamental to guarantee human rights, and is often an indicator of how a society will manage the application of human rights in general. If we asses freedom of speech through the "veil of ignorance" proposed by John Rawls, unknowing of which censorship would occur, it is doubtful that any of us would agree to arbitrary limitations of expression.

 

Speaking personally, while this right may be complex and multifaceted in application, freedom of speech must ultimately exist, because the violence that arises of state censorship has the potential to be absolute. Freedom of speech allows me to both express who I am, and debate ideas I do not agree with. It allows those who have no visibility to share their stories. It guarantees that those who denounce oppression should not be incarcerated for their words. For me it is a basis of human dignity.

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