Freedom of speech is a guaranteed human right both under the United States Constitution and as a United Nations’ Charter. This freedom is one of the most fundamental of human rights as it allows for people to establish their own political ideologies and is necessary for any substantial political discourse. Unfortunately, legal protections for free speech are threatened worldwide, even in countries that are said to be democracies. This article will primarily address the concept of freedom of speech in the Western world, with a particular emphasis on how it is implemented to varying degrees in countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.
Theoretical Necessity for Freedom of Speech
Philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn states that since democracy involves self-government by the populace, it necessitates an informed population. These citizens, he states, must have access to all forms of information and be allowed to form their own political ideas based on these facts. He argues that no true democracy would manipulate information by limiting its flow, even if that limitation is done to benefit society. By not curtailing information, the population has the ability to formulate their own independent thoughts and ideologies, even if they counter commonly prevailing ideas. This idea is perfectly expressed by Evelyn Hall’s quote, “I may not agree with what you have to say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
American Civil Liberties Union writer Lee Rowland advocated for the ideal of free speech when she stated that, “When you choose censorship as your substantive argument, you lose the debate”. This statement clearly expresses how vital freedom of speech is to any debate and that without it, no true debate can be had. If one is limited in their speech, whether governmentally or culturally, true growth of ideas cannot occur. Rowland realises that many people may state hurtful or rude things or have beliefs contrary to her own but that they must be free to state and act how they wish. Limiting these rights in any way hinders the ability for discussion and debate, thus disrupting the functionality of a democratic government.
The First Amendment is the single most important legal provision of the United States Constitution as it allows for the free expression of ideas. This systemic protection of free expression has allowed the United States to become one of the most ideologically diverse countries in the world with political parties stemming from the Libertarian to the Communist Parties. The First Amendment allows for these ideologies to meet and discuss ideas without fear of repression, further allowing for the growth of the political spectrum.
Problems with Regulation
Despite being crucial to the function of any free, democratic nation, there have been instances in which democracies worldwide have acted against their own principles and enacted legislation curbing free speech protections in the name of preventing hate crimes. However, by limiting what can legally be said in the public sphere, the freedom to debate and learn information is adversely affected. Having a government control what people can say inherently affects people’s outlooks on a myriad of things. Recently, Canada’s 2016 Bill C-16 and Scotland’s 2021 Hate Crime Bill, for instance, have given free speech advocates pause for concern.
By creating Bill C-16, the Parliament of Canada forced its own governmental views on the nation’s population as it vastly expanded the scope of what can be considered a hate crime. Psychologist Jordan Peterson argues that, due to how the legal bill is written, anything can be construed “directly or indirectly” as offensive on an intentional or unintentional basis. This means that people's own statements, even if meant as inoffensive or unintentionally offensive to somebody, could be used against them in a court of law. Tensions between expressions of belief by religiously conservative groups and LGBTQ+ advocacy in the public sphere have emerged as a source of concern for how applications of this ostensibly well-intentioned law might be used as a political tool.
As a result of Peterson’s stance on Bill C-16, he has become a controversial figure in Canada and nearly lost his job. This bill made it so that places of employment were held subject to people's speech and, as such, Peterson was issued two warnings over his opinions. Although these warnings did not stop Peterson’s arguments against the bill, it has inevitably curtailed the opinions of others from being expressed out of fear of retaliation. Arguably, Peterson was protected by his fame and was able to weather the political storm against his views in ways in which most Canadians would not be able. Furthermore, a graduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University showed a video of Petersons discussing the bill and faced threats and reprimands by faculty. This demonstrates the extent to which this bill has been used to limit people's freedom of speech.
The Hate Crime Bill, enacted by the Scottish Parliament in March 2021, has similar inherent implications pertaining to freedom of speech. This bill has a vast array of ambiguous statements that do not adequately qualify or define the offense of “stirring up hatred”, leaving it unclear which actions could be considered a hate crime. The Catholic Church, in particular, has spoken out against this law, arguing that it infringes on the rights of Catholics in Scotland due to the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriages and increased transgender rights. Due to the nature of hatred being an undefined personal view, it inherently varies from person to person and therefore can be applied to a vast array of speech and text.
This bill provides vast governmental oversight into the daily activities of Scots, going so far as to provide protections within people's private residences. An Airdrie resident, Marion Millar, faces up to two years in jail for stating her own feminist beliefs on the social media platform Twitter. It is unknown what she tweeted that led to her arrest but based on previous statements, it is assumed that it dealt with transgender rights in contrast with feminist rights. Ms. Millar’s critics routinely call her a T.E.R.F (Transgender Exclusionary Radical Feminist) which now has become outlawed by the Hate Crime Bill. As many classically liberal or right-wing organisations stand opposed to the ideas presented in regards to the transgender issue, this bill controls what the opposition can and cannot say.
By holding this same standard, even the major television program ‘60 Minutes’ could be charged with committing a hate crime as they recently had a segment against youths being allowed to transition to their chosen gender. Holding anti-trans beliefs in Scotland, therefore, has effectively become illegal in the physical and cyber worlds. This means that any socially conservative individual can be at risk of a hate crime solely for stating their own beliefs. This bill further separates the two sides of the political spectrum as one is pushed into silence while the other is allowed free reign in the public sphere. No true good can come of this limitation as it further separates and radicalises each side individually. What is meant by this is that peoples’ opinions are typically formed in discussion and in contrast to others' opinions, so by separating any differing thoughts the accepted political beliefs will become further left and right wing. This is emphasised in the modern day with the demonisation of political opponents, something which is clearly present on both sides of the political aisle. Therefore, for any country to have moderation in its political spectrum, discourse must be allowed and encouraged without limitation or demonisation. Due to how this Hate Crime Bill is written, the ability to engage in debate and conversation is inherently limited and therefore further divides people on opposing sides of the political spectrum.
Why Freedom of Speech is Necessary for any Country
For any country to truly be free and democratic, freedom of speech must not be infringed. It is too idealistic to make laws infringing these freedoms for the protection of others because they are oftentimes abused; over the last year, dozens of countries have invoked the COVID-19 pandemic to curb free assembly and protest. By not having unrestricted freedom of speech, one inherently loses their right to protest ideas harmful to their own. They become entrapped and forced to adhere to ideals that are not theirs and therefore lose their own individuality. It is no coincidence that soon after laws such as the Hate Crime Bill were passed in the United Kingdom that laws against protests began. On the United Kingdom’s own governmental website, they even state that the freedom of speech is “not [an] absolute right”. For any protest to occur, one must first have the freedom of speech to speak out against their government and for their own beliefs.
Thomas Jefferson said that “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical”. Freedom of speech is necessary for any government to self-correct and abstain from becoming too tyrannical in nature. The belief that a government can slightly infringe on any freedom for the betterment of society holds an unrealistic and idealistic view of governments. This aforementioned belief has been routinely shown to be fallacious in nature throughout history as no government has willingly limited its own power in such a manner.
The freedom of speech allows for people to self-correct and formulate their own thoughts as it allows them to freely partake in discourse with others. This freedom is one of the key features of national constitutions such as that of the United States. However, even certain democratic nations with strong human rights records have not secured this right as explicitly; backlash faced by the Scottish Hate Crime Bill and the Canadian Bill C-16 illustrates the importance of establishing foundational legal rights to promote transparency, fairness, and ideological diversity in a nation. The difference in the implementation of freedom of speech in the US compared to the UK is most prominently seen in the wide variety of freedoms protected in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. This differentiation in the importance of freedom of speech further shows how necessary it is as people in countries such as the UK and Canada are often imprisoned for merely stating their political beliefs. This is inherently problematic as it encourages the demonisation and separation of the political spectrums. Therefore by limiting freedom of speech, one loses the ability to discuss and debate with others, thus limiting the political world.