The question I would like to approach in this brief essay is 'What are the intrinsic strengths of maintaining a principle of free speech'?, and 'should such a principle, if it can be found, operate within a Democracy'?, Furthermore, is it ideal, indeed, an intrinsic quality within Democracy that the principle of free speech be maintained?
I shall begin the defence on behalf of a principle of free speech by defining the environment in which it exists. Democracy has been interpreted to mean many things to many people, but suffice it to say that for the rest of this essay it shall be understood to mean power of governance ‘Of the people, by the people, for the people’, such that those citizens of said Democracies are mutually responsible for the governance of the collective social structure. It should be pointed out at this juncture that in defining our democracy as power of governance ‘for’ the people, I am in no way condoning or alluding to a situation in which a pro-active government impels or coerces its member into a ‘better’ more moral state of being under the guise of a majoritarian mandate. Rather I define ‘for’ the people to mean a state in which, to the utmost of its ability, the state shall endeavor not to interfere with the basic freedoms of its population and to maintain an environment in which the provisions of certain basic freedoms, ie:- the right to life, etc, are protected by the power of the state. The test will be whether a principle of free speech can be maintained, not just as a corollary of some other basic liberty, nor merely as a Nozickian “side constraint”, but rather as a prior principle more fundamental than any majoritarian concern.
It is obvious from the start that concerns can be raised about the purported primacy of free speech, given the fact that acts of speech can, and very well do, cause harm of one sort or another. This occurs not just through such things as loss of social standing, psychological abuse, or the myriad other forms of harms that accrue through acts of slander or denigration of character, but also real physical harms, through such instances as the verbal commands issued by malefic militarists to name but one instance. These are cases in which due to the peculiar position of the speech act as a mechanism for communication, operating within a chain of command whose motivations and agenda’s have little to do with the protection of free speech, we would be loath to say they were occasions in which the free exercise of the speech acts should be protected by any free democratic state. Hate speech is another topical example of the illustration I wish to draw. In acts of supposed hate speech, the governing body, whether it be a small institution or a full blown state, takes it upon itself to legislate and prohibit all forms of speech and other communications that degrade the dignity of some other of its member, on the grounds of race, sex, religion, or any other discrimination that is deemed to be harmful to the well being of its membership.
Another argument that is often heard and which again illustrates the concern with free speech as a primary principle is that of sedition. In cases of sedition it appears self evident that the state has a responsibility to its membership to maintain a secure and stable system in which the best interests of the population can be catered for, through an environment that allows for the greatest expression of personal freedoms for each of its member. This can not be the case, runs the argument, when people perpetrate seditious acts, whose sole intention is insurrection and the overthrow of the state. The state then has a legitimate responsibility to protect the sovereignty of democratic governance, and thus acts of expression, of which speech is but one, that convey or communicate a message that is contrary to the perpetuation of a just and free democratic state can and must be prohibited on the basis of social security. The question of who it is that decides what is best for the whole is another question that we shall briefly touch on later in the essay, suffice it to say here that the majority within a democracy dictate the moral and legal climate through election of representatives that convey the motivations and morals of the majority of there electorate. It is of course debatable as to whether this actually occurs in reality or whether it is more of an ideological truism, given such ambiguities as vested personal and business interests that time and again arise in relation to elected officials.
These are but some of the concerns expressed by those who would deny the primacy of a principle of free speech, in fact most of these concerns do not even recognize acts of speech as separate from a more general form of expression and see speech acts as being a subset of a more general species of expression. Thus as it would be negligent of any free democratic state to allow injury through physical harms perpetrated by one member upon another, so it follows that just because it is an act of speech does not mean it is separated from the more general censures justly enforced upon other forms of expression. For if speech is but another form of expression then it should be subject to the same restrictions that all forms of expressions must adhere to, and as the state would not condone the violence of an angry man, so to it cannot allow acts of speech that incite or create harm for those of its member. These are compelling arguments on the face of it against the primacy of a principle of free speech, and it now rests upon the proponents of a free speech principle to rebut them.
Firstly I would like to look at an argument we touched upon earlier. The state within a democratic society must never be seen to be that which it isn’t, namely infallible. For it is this assumption more than any other that leads one to hand over the personal liberties and freedoms that any free thinking and freely choosing autonomous individual holds to be essential to there notion of personal integrity and freedom. If one assumes the state to be a beneficent entity then one is more likely to suspend the exercise of total personal freedom in favour of a more mutually beneficial system that protects the individuals personal freedoms in a co-extensive manner with others of there society. Yet governments are not infallible, in fact they tend to be time and place specific organs of fallibility, much as human beings themselves are. For it is people who run governments, lest we forget, and as such those that wield the power of the state are as open to fallibility as anybody else, thus one of the reasons for giving over personal autonomy to the state starts to look a little shaky. If anything this begins to look like a pretty good reason for maintaining personal freedom of speech so as to enable one to criticize unjust regimes that may be wrong in the execution of there powers. In fact one might wish to contend that it is only through the free and open communication of ideas that a free democratic government can be seen to be ‘accountable’ to the electorate of which they serve. For the nature of democracy, as it was interpreted earlier, is that the power should flow from the people to the state not the other way around, or if it is the other way round at all then it is a form of ‘empowerment’ of the peoples basic freedoms as opposed to the suppression of them, which could be seen as dis-empowerment through state interference. In maintaining this principle of free and open discussion we find that those that administer the power of the state are now subject to a form of accountability that acts as a check upon any misuse of the sovereign power ceded by the people to these individuals who choose to represent them.
As a quick aside, it might be well to mention the objection of Henry David Thoreau, in his great liberal treatise, 'Civil Disobedience', for he makes a very telling point in relation to the necessity to maintain the protections for individuals in a society, be it democratic or not, but more especially Democratic for our purposes. Civil Disobedience is often confused with sedition in relation to justice by systems and forms of governance who seek to maintain powerful positions in the face of tyrannical misanthropy. Indeed sedition can be used as an excuse to perpetrate acts of injustice upon an unpopular minority, by an unscrupulous government, in moments where resistance to injustice, although justified, is assumed by the ruling powers to run counter to there interests. Whether these interests are for personal or public benefit. Thoreau illustrates this beautifully in relation to a general taxation policy, and while the topical illustration is somewhat beyond the scope of this essay, the principle upon which the illustration rests is pertinent.
Let us assume, that through inculcation of the masses over a long period of time, a public or mainstream persona, or mindset is constructed, by a state run media organelle. This same mindset subtly constructs the framework upon which subsequent electoral issues are fought. it is not too great a stretch of the imagination to picture just such a situation, given the historically presidential examples, of Nazi Germany, Soviet run Media, even the Burmese state funded and controlled press in the run up to the 2010 election. Now of these, of course only the Burmese example purports to exist within a democracy, even though the Nazi example was initiated by Goebbels during a proportional representative system in a constitutional democracy.
This singular mindset, coerced and manipulated by a powerful body that controls the organelle through which information flows publically, then duly elects the representatives that best represent the closest fit to the mind set that has been engendered. Now of course this would not have to happen with only state control, or malefic and coercive governments, but could be created and constructed through any powerful collective that manipulated and controlled the flow of information on a public level, such as a large cabal of Corporate enterties in a purely capitalist system of private media, where the cabal of Corporations simply manipulated the general mindset, by owning all the channels of public communication, ensuring only their collective message was being inculcated through out the masses.
The great danger then in this illustration is, as Thoreau so sagaciously supposed in relation to compulsive taxation in his own essay, that if dissenting voices, all be they unpopular voices be silenced, in the name of some fabricated conception of sedition, then a form of coercive tyranny exists within the democracy that is at once unjust, and counter to the personal and public welfare, if it is assumed that the general public welfare is to be found in the flourishing of each individual as 'best judge' of there own lives. Thoreau went on to say, that not only was it necessary that these dissenting voices be heard, but that the population both singularly and as a whole had a responsibility to ensure that dissenting voices are heard, so that the slippery slope of tyrannical rule be avoided by any healthy and well functioning democracy. As Voltaire so rightly supposes, in this instance it appears that 'the only thing that is demanded of a mature democracy, is eternal vigilance', and as an addendum maybe, we can say the greatest insurance within a democracy to keep the tyranny at bay, is to ensure the free exercise of opinion in the widest possible manner, so as to ensure that malefic or powerful cabals or enterties do not subvert the general freedoms for their own personal agenda's.
Acts of free speech then in relation to sedition as a charge levelled by popular or general opinion as expressed through the organelle of government should be liberally adjudged in relation to the context in which it exists. If it exists within oppressive situations in which the minority opinions, no matter how unpopular they may be, are suppressed then we should be wholly suspicious of such a charge. If however, a seditious charge be levelled in a society in which free speech is supported and maintained as a primary right, and duty, then it may be assumed, albeit judiciously, that the charge was the outcome of some action that followed from the speech act itself that cut across the co-requisite rights or duties of other of the citizenry in a free, liberal and democratic system of government.
Thoreau's charge then, that we as citizens have a responsibility to ensure dissenting opinions be heard, and that if necessary we must hold this responsibility to account through civil disobedience, is a powerful argument for the primacy of free speech in democracy. It is also a strong pointer to the direction that democracy needs to take in order to ensure that powerful elites with personal agenda's are at least transparent in there actions, if not held to account in the market place of idea's that is the bastion of any proper functioning Democracy. So, another good reason, and one that runs in conjunction with the aforementioned support of an independent free speech principle, is that only if the electorate has the access to the requisite information can it be said to be acting to the best of its ability when making decisions. The decision making process must be allowed the fullest exercise, and thus the fullest access to information concerning these decisions, in a democracy. As any D.M.P is constrained by the well spring of information from which it draws. Thus if we are indeed looking for a truly free democracy then the open exchange of ideas is essential for the education of the electorate. Only when the electorate are allowed access to the full range of competing choices can they be said to be exercising there full democratic freedom when making such decisions, such as, who is the best candidate for the job?
So both the argument for accountability and the argument for the fullest access to information for the electorate, lend weight to the idea of the primacy of a principle of free speech, yet they also lend weight to the protection of more general freedoms of expression as well, and thus free speech is often subsumed in modern law into a more general protection for freedom of expression. This freedom of expression is held to be sacrosanct in many liberal documents, such as the ‘declaration of human rights’ article 19, or even within the charter of the United Nations article 55(c), which seeks to maintain the dignity and worth of the human person through “the universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without discrimination as to race, sex, language, or religion”. Thus further support is given for the freedom of speech under a more general banner of ‘freedom of expression’. This promotion and protection of basic human rights and freedoms could also be seen as one of the greatest self-limitations of a democracy. Preventing it from becoming tyrannical. The tyranny of the majority being rightly seen as one of the greatest evils of any democracy and one in which John Stewart Mill particularly warned against in chap 2 of his great liberal treatise ‘On Liberty’.
Talk of a general freedom of expression is all well and good, and so far as it lends support to freedom of speech as a species of a more general freedom of expression, we may say that it benefits a society and is an intrinsic part of any free democracy. So is there anything about an act of speech that would allow for a specific principle of free speech to emerge over and above any of the other competing principles? Let us now examine what it means to speak freely and examine why this might be seen as being a cornerstone of any free and open democracy.
Both the arguments for free speech presented before are, as Frederick Schauer so rightly points out in his work ‘Free speech: A Philosophical inquiry’, consequentialist in approach, ”each of these arguments values open communication for what it does, not for what it is”(chap4, pg47).
These arguments still do not create an environment from which we may procure an independent principle of free speech, but rather recognize free speech as a necessary condition of a properly functioning democratic process, and thus are arguments that see freedom of speech not as an intrinsic good unto itself but rather as beneficial due to the benefits that society accrues through the exercise of these freedoms. In short they are consequentialist. Yet there are a number of arguments that do not rest upon the need to edify the society, rather the emphasis is upon the individual. Although it may be the case that society gains some benefit it is “incidental to the primary focus of individual well being”(chap4 pg. 48).
Aristotle was one who observed that the freedom of speech was an intrinsic good unto itself, as it allowed for the full and complete self-development of the individual. This self-development was supposed to be the ultimate ideal upon which any free society should set itself. For he presumed that the life worth living is the one in which personal growth, self fulfilment and the full and open development of the rational qualities is realized. So the emphasis is upon what a person ‘should’ be striving towards not what they actually are. It follows that free speech is an intrinsic good due to the fact that rational qualities are more readily realized through an open communication policy, and for Aristotle the abiding difference between humanity and mere animals was the development of this rationality, of which animals supposedly lacked. One may well argue that it was presumptuous of Aristotle to presume that animals lacked the requisite faculty of rationality, after all who knows the mind of a lobster! yet this is an aside for now. Suffice it say that if Aristotle was correct in this assertion, then it strengthens the claims of those who support a free speech principle in so far as speech is an integral part of rationality. If the development of a person’s rationality is what counts then we would have to conclude that speech was indeed an intrinsic good. There are however strong objections to this, as who is to say that the development of the rational being is any more important than say the right to food, warmth, or shelter; and if all that can be said of speech is that it is another form of self expression, as violent abuse is, then what is to stop society rightly censuring speech, much along the lines that it already does for other anti-social expressions. It would seem ludicrous to suggest that society should not interfere with acts of speech when many other forms of expression are prohibited so as to maintain an environment conducive to the health, wealth, and fulfilment of the members of that society.
There must then be something about acts of speech that separate them from other forms of self expression if we are going to succeed in creating a primary principle of free speech that isn’t trumped by other societal concerns and requirements. Here we start to approach the crux of the argument levelled by proponents of free speech, namely that acts of speech are a peculiar form of expression and in fact could be aligned with the freedom to communicate. This freedom to communicate is itself derived from what most liberal thinkers believe to be the cornerstone of any free and open society, namely, ‘the freedom of thought’. The old adage that you may take all my freedoms but you will never take my thoughts is a common understanding. Yet what of cases in which one is brainwashed or manipulated into doing something by constant reinforcement regimes? Modern advertisers may fall into this category, as might commercial companies that actively try to manipulate advertising campaigns that increase there desired results, namely, profits. Some may even target young people, which on the face of it might make sound economic sense, as youth have less mental barriers to overcome and thus are a desirous target market. ‘Get them while they are young’, being an important part of such a manipulative advertising and marketing strategy. So here would be a situation in which people are being actively manipulated by others whose agenda’s have little or nothing to do with realizing full self–development, rather, it is driven by profit, not people. Should not society then have the right to protect its citizenry from such abuse, especially when the targets of such manipulation are themselves not fully rational beings? Here seems to be a strong argument for some form of censure of acts of speech as modes of communication, and thus any primary principle of free speech founders upon the rocks of other competing freedoms.
We do however have an intuitive belief that thought, and its closely allied faculty of opinion, are sacrosanct in any open and free society. So it cannot be the mere expression of speech acts that gives any free speech principle its philosophic clout. Rather it may be more supportive to think of acts of speech as the first natural extensions of thought itself, for thought seems to function in such a way as to moderate itself through language much as speech does, both are dependent upon language for there existence. If we think at all it is usually through the mode of language. Speech acts are a primary extension of this language and as such form a bridge between thought and action. Some may argue at this point that any extension from thought itself is an action and this may be a valid point, but the peculiar nature of speech is that unlike any other action it relies upon the internal thought process and motivations of the expresser implicitly and cannot be divorced from the language of thought in the way that any other form of expression can. Furthermore if we are to recognize that the self development and betterment of the individual is of prime importance, both to the individual and as a spin off society at large, and further recognize that the freedom of thought is a natural given that cannot and should not be controlled by any free and open democracy, then we may wish to allow acts of speech a more important role in the formulation of judgements about which principles to adopt at a lexically prior stage when establishing societal principles at large.
Another reason that acts of speech differ from other forms of communicable expression is that they are culturally ancient. That is, before the advent of written and other forms of communication that came to be an accepted part of society, speech was the most important communicable asset the human species had. Most, if not all, cultures stem from the roots of an exclusively oral culture. It was in fact the only medium of communication open to many cultures and as such holds a universal appeal that is deep seeded within the architecture of the human psyche. The censure of speech acts then could be seen as a betrayal against a naturally occurring phenomena that is universally practised by not just those alive today, but also by all our ancestors from the first time they grunted which way the woolly mammoths were heading. It is seen then as a gift that has been passed down and hard won by those of our past and should be protected by the current crop of humanity so that it may be passed on intact to subsequent generations.
Speech also acts, as I have hinted above, as a bridge between thought and action. It allows for the evolution of thought itself, through the barter and exchange of ideas. This allows us to change or meliorate our opinions in such a way as to inordinately strengthen our individual and societal decision making process, and in any open and free democracy this has to be an enormous plus. Speech also allows us to test our ideas in free exchange with others without actually having to implement them. This can act as a societal & individual pressure valve, and allow for situations in which the correct course of action can take place rather than blithely blundering from one wrong action to another. Speech then could be said to be the glue that holds all the facets of human interaction together.
Further arguments can be offered that rest upon the notions of personal autonomy and societal respect for dignity, and although these are powerful arguments in favour of the primacy of personal liberty, they are not necessarily specific to a principle of free speech. That said, the argument propounded by Thoreau in his great liberal and social essay 'Civil Disobedience', pointed to a species of principle that cannot be separated from any form of deliberation in regards to whether free Speech is a necessary and intrinsic quality, and primary principle of any proper functioning Democracy, and as we noted quite clearly, the fullest and most extensive exercise of free speech must be maintained so as to avoid the pitfalls of a coercive tyranny of the majority over the minority through the duress and coercion of powerful manipulative bodies or powers that seek to subvert general or other individual opinions in favor of there own in an unjust manner, and in this regards free speech is intrinsic to a fully functioning democracy.
To conclude then, we have discovered that the freedom of speech allows for the greatest diversity of opinion and this diversity is the very lifeblood of any dynamic and openly free democracy. It allows the democratic process to evolve and not remain static and thus stagnate. We have also noted that the very nature of democracy lends itself to the establishment of a principle of free speech as a prerequisite to any open and free society, but reservations were also noted in so far as acts of speech can and do cause harm to others. What is probably needed here is an appeal to tolerance, but that is beyond the scope of this essay.
A balance must then be struck in which the protection of society, from those that would use speech acts not as expressions of opinion but rather as commercial or inter personal tools of manipulation, must be weighed against the fullest empowerment of the individuals human right of freedom of thought, and speech as a natural extension of that freedom. A principle of free speech then, is I believe enshrined within the notion of democracy itself.
The prior nature of any principle of free speech then should be recognized only in conjunction with other competing freedoms, although it should always be with grave deliberation that any censure or prohibition of free speech in particular should be undertaken. Thus the primacy of a principle of free speech over and above other forms of self expression should always be foremost when orchestrating a set of principles from which a free and open democracy may function, and so the question of whether a principle of free speech is intrinsically a part of democracy, must be answered, in the unqualified affirmative, albeit with the proviso that certain content of free speech cannot be divorced from the context in which it is expressed. That being said, the best defence against all forms of tyranny, wherever and however they may arise, is first and foremost the principled primacy of free speech.
1.Frederick schauer. ‘Free speech a philosophical
enquirery’: Cambridge university press, Cambridge.
2.John Rawls. ‘A theory of justice’:
Oxford university press: ( 1990)
3.J.S.Mill. ‘On liberty and considerations on
representative government’: Everymans library; (1984)
4.Robert Nozick. ‘Anarchy, state, and utopia’
Basic books; (1980).
5.The oxford companion to philosophy; edited by
Ted Honderich; Oxford university press( 1990).
6. Henry David Thoreau. 'Civil Disobedience'
© Richard Michael Parker 1999