Why Free Speech Shouldn't Be An Absolute Right

Bear with me here. 

I was born and raised in the UK where I still live; throughout my entire life I have never shied away from speaking my mind and saying what I wanted to say for fear that I would get into trouble. To that end, "free speech" such as it is, has never really been something to think about for its own sake. 

Studying the Law however, made me realise that in a civilised society, we can only function as a whole society, when, to some extent, we either police and censor our own speech, or someone does it for us. 

When I say "speech," I'm not talking about the spoken word alone; I am of course referring to any medium by which we express ourselves and make our words known, whether that's through writing, speaking or otherwise, and be it through any medium - face to face, newspapers, online, broadcast media, radio etc. 

The interesting thing is that most of us, (I'd suggest, all of us), actively censor or police or own speech in our day to day lives. And I'm not talking about grand ideas of right and wrong, or morality and immorality etc. I'm literally referring here, to our day to day interactions, with the people we live with, those we work with, our families, friends and the people we bump into. There is always an element of censoring ourselves; no-one ever says exactly what they're thinking, at every minute of every day.

Part of us recognises, whether it's through our upbringing or because we've come to this realisation ourselves, that we can't do this. If we did, we'd literally have no-one to speak to. Every single person has things that they think, but will never say. And to my mind, that's perfectly alright because that's the only way we can live in communities - in our families, neighbourhoods or workplaces. 


When Conflict Arises...

The problem with saying that 'free speech shouldn't be an absolute right,' seems to arise in the specific context of politics, or when someone wants to say something hateful. At that point, the person making the remark feels affronted and censored from saying what they really want to say - and the classic line they tend to use, is that 'I have the right to free speech' or 'You're infringing on my right to free speech.' 

A few points to note about this. Firstly, certainly in the UK and Europe, free speech simply does not exist as an absolute right, and it never has done. And yet, no-one really seems to have had a problem with this, if they've even noticed at all, until recent years when hateful remarks have become far more common than they once were. All of a sudden, there are people up in arms about their 'right to free speech' when frankly, it hasn't made any impact on their life up to that point, and only then, because their 'right to free speech' has infringed on another's right not to be abused or assaulted, either through speech or otherwise. 


American Influence

There has been an Americanisation of 'free speech' across the Western world. The US Constitution enshrines the right to free speech in the First Amendement:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.


The EU on the other hand, provides the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 11 states:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.
2. The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.


When the UK translated Article 11 in to English law, via the Human Rights Act 1998, it did so with an amendment. Article 10 of the HRA 1998 states:

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

There was a clear recognition by the UK that yes, whilst you can say what you like for the most part, and the state is willing to let you say what you want, the state also has a duty to protect its other citizens from your freedom of speech, if, it's likely to lead to any of the harms outlined above. And this, my friends is the part that gets missed out so often in the free speech debates; that the right to free speech is not unqualified (in the UK/EU), and nor should it be


Why It's Right Not to Have Free Speech as an Unqualified Right

To put it simply, there are far, far too many things that could go wrong if free speech was a fully unqualified right. The Law, aims to balance every individual's right to and against others. If one person were to have this unqualified right, how long would it take before this right began infringing on another person's rights not to be subjected to abuse or discrimination or prejudice etc. The answer, is, not very.

We can already see the state of the US with some groups ardently exercising their right to free speech, translating to other groups being harmed, being placed at risk of harm, being disadvantaged or discriminated against, and overall, creating a climate of hostility towards anyone or anything that is the subject of their free speech.

And here's the thing. The same people who have complete devotion to this unqualified right, don't offer the same right to others. There seems to be a disconnect between one person saying they hate someone (and this apparently being their exercise of freedom of speech), and not recognising that the person they're saying this to, or about, has an equal right to respond and say what they want to, too. The end result of all this being:  people are offended because someone's said or done something offensive to them; they've tried to retaliate or respond only to find that freedom of speech has ended somewhere before it reached them; and in the background, with one on one incidents increasing, and eventual societal collapse before our very eyes. 

It might sound dramatic, but just take a look at the state of America today.