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In practice, free speech isn't absolute

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Recently, controversies at universities around the country have caused conflict about the meaning of freedom of speech.

Disruption to planned speakers who incite strong reactions has ignited outrage amongst students and the media.

Free speechIn order to get to the bottom of the debate, we need to think more about the different arguments about freedom of speech.

Salman Rushdie, who was infamously censored for writing a bit of literature, once said that without the freedom to offend, freedom of expression ceases to exist at all. That is to say that in order to have meaningful freedom of speech, all views, ideas and volitions must have the right to exist without intimidation or punishment, no matter how disagreeable or estranged from our own they are.

Once you ban one thing, there is a slippery slope, and suddenly all censorship becomes permissible.

So we’ve agreed it’s best just to permit everything. No matter how awful. It’s expected that ‘liberal’ societies will protect our rights to hold our views and bang our drums. But are all voices created equal, and do they necessarily have the right to be heard all of the time?

It is a question that is harder to answer than it may first appear.

Standard arguments for freedom of speech as freedom to offend appeal to our western liberal values, which forbid the prohibiting of self-expression, but there is a gap between the rhetoric of free speech and what it really means in practice.

For one, we know the law has never protected dissident groups from being punished for their political volitions in the past and present.

As an example, in America enhanced governmental repression was applied to the Black Panther Party, for example, who were infiltrated and slaughtered for possessing a political will which offended the societal norms of a country with a long history of violence and racism.

Whistleblowers who expose government illegality in their use of torture and extraordinary rendition do so in order to uphold integrity, yet they are intimidated by the state for daring to raise their voice.

Is it possible to argue that there is meaningful freedom of expression while a conscientious dissent is punished and malevolent bigotry is free?

Furthermore, there is a legal basis for freedom of speech which suggests its’ meaning goes beyond the mere freedom to offend.

If you consider the role of the law to protect the rights of minorities against the tyranny of majorities, then you may conclude that hate speech actually impinges on the freedom and rights of minorities, and that the truly reactionary ideas are those contained in hate speech.

Moreover, sociological studies have demonstrated that not all voices are created equal.

Due to socialised entitlement some groups will dominate discussions whilst others will less opportunities to participate. It’s a silent sort of censorship.

So some say that liberty consists in equalling the playing field rather than giving free reign to offensiveness.

In theory speech is free, but in practice some speech is more privileged than others.




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