This paper is based on the topic of freedom of speech. It seeks to provide answers to the question of whether there should be limits to freedom of speech in a democratic society. It is argued that even though freedom of speech is an inalienable right, there are some circumstances under which the right may be restrained. The reason is that the freedom of speech comes with responsibilities which people must put into consideration for them to enjoy the freedom.
In a democratic society, people are free to do what they think serves their interests including the freedom to express their feelings, perceptions and thoughts. However, the same democracy gives people the right to live in a society where there is peaceful coexistence which is only possible if the people exercise their freedom of speech without compromising the ability of others to exercise theirs. The bottom line of the paper is that people should be left to exercise their freedom of speech but respect the rights of others. If people choose to do otherwise, then peaceful coexistence becomes untenable.
Human beings are entitled to certain rights and privileges which are natural. Such rights and privileges should be enjoyed freely and be protected from any form of violation. In a natural state therefore, everybody has the right to do what pleases him or her and also the right and responsibility to respect the rights of others. Rights exist as shared norms and underscore the importance of treating all human beings with dignity, fairness, and equality irrespective of their cultural backgrounds. Human rights ideas emerged after the Second World War when the universal declaration of human rights was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948 (Chandler, 2002).
According to the social contract theory which was formulated by Rousseau, the relationship between democratic governments and people is based on a social agreement in which the people agree to surrender some of their rights in exchange of protection by their government (Rousseau, 2004). The theory conceptualizes the relationship between a government and the people as a symbiotic relationship which is characterized by the spirit of ‘give and take’. According to the theory, the government has the responsibility of protecting the freedom of speech from violation. In return, the people have the responsibility of respecting others and avoiding actions which may cause a violation of the rights of others.
Freedom of speech is one of many political rights accorded to citizens by constitutions and international law. The right gives citizens an opportunity to express their ideas and opinions through their bodies or properties to whoever is willing and interested in receiving those ideas and opinions. The concept of freedom of speech is synonymous to freedom of expression which has to do with receiving, seeking, and imparting opinions, ideas and information through any medium which may include the press, print, social and other media (Hare & Weinstein, 2009).
Freedom of speech as a human right is found in various legal instruments such as the universal declaration of human rights, the international covenant on civil and political rights, the international human rights law, the England bill of rights, the American convention on human rights, the European convention on human rights, the African charter on human and peoples’ rights and in constitutions of various countries (Hare & Weinstein, 2009).The fact that freedom of speech is recognized by all these law institutions is a clear indication that it is a fundamental right which ought to be respected by governments, institutions, and individuals (Hare & Weinstein, 2009).
Contemporary scholars such as John Milton have conceptualized freedom of speech as a multifaceted concept which includes the right to seek, receive, disseminate, and impart information and ideas to others in various ways such as through oral communication, writing, print media, and the internet (Hare & Weinstein, 2009).
In some situations however, democratically constituted governments may put restrictions to the freedom of expression. Some of the grounds under which restrictions to freedom of expression may be applied include hate speech, obscenity, and slander. Obscenity is engaging in a behavior which is considered as immoral in a particular social setting. For example, some societies consider vulgar language, nudity, and prostitution as immoral. In such societies therefore, there are legal sanctions for people who exhibit such behaviors. That is to mean that people should not use their freedom of expression to post nude photographs on the internet, watch or sale pornographic materials (Hare & Weinstein, 2009).
Hate speech is any kind of utterances or messages which are directed to a particular target on grounds of gender, race, and ethnicity or on social, economic and political orientations. The freedom of expression therefore does not allow citizens to speak negatively or abuse other people because that is illegal and it carries legal sanctions. Engaging in hate speech may therefore lead to prosecution in a court of law (Hare & Weinstein, 2009).
Hate speech may also constitute incitement of citizens by politicians against the government. Some politicians may abuse the freedom of expression to incite citizens to rebel against the leadership of a country. Such incitements may lead to open rebellion which if not well managed can easily turn into political tension, violence or lack of social order.
Hate speech may be propagated by the press through broadcasting of information which may paint a government in bad light. In such cases, the government may come up with legislation to restrain the press from doing so. The whole idea is to ensure that the citizens enjoy their freedom in a way which does not compromise the government’s ability to function properly (Hare & Weinstein, 2009).
In regard to hate speech however, there is a thin line between the freedom of expression and incitement. For example, the September 11 terrorism attacks made the US government to scale up its fight against terrorism. As a result, the former US President George W. Bush signed the US Patriotic Act into law (Ball, 2004).
The Act required Americans to make some sacrifices regarding their civil liberties like the right to privacy through internet communication. The aim was to help the FBI trace and identify any premeditated terrorism attacks and take the necessary measures to protect the citizens. The government considered such a violation as a necessary evil in because failure to do so would have caused another round of terrorism attacks. However, it was not easy to balance between the protection of citizens from terrorism and respecting the freedom of expression of the citizens.
Many law enforcing agencies also find it difficult to qualify an act as hate speech or as freedom of expression. As a result, the police arrest people for engaging in hate speech but the people are released on grounds of freedom of expression. In some cases, the civil society is known to take advantage of the freedom of expression to propagate their own agenda which in most cases is against government policies and regulations (Hare & Weinstein, 2009).
Ball, H. (2004). The USA Patriot Act of 2001: balancing civil liberties and national security: a reference handbook. Santa Barbara: Calif Publishers.
Chandler, D. (2002). Rethinking human rights: critical approaches to international politics. Palgrave: Macmillan.
Hare, I., & Weinstein, J. (2009). Extreme speech and democracy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rousseau, Jean.J.2004. The social contract or principles of political right. McKeesport, PA: Kessinger Publishing.