Freedom of speech: Why is it important?

It is pretty widely accepted that free speech is an essential part of a democratic society, and should be upheld to some degree. But the real question lies in how far we take it. While some people believe that freedom of speech should be upheld at all costs, others believe that it can be an excuse for saying harmful things without reprimand.

In order to clarify the arguments surrounding free speech, we’ve written this article about where it originates from, how it differs around the world, how it benefits society, and what some of its limitations are. This is by no means a formal guide to the laws surrounding free speech, but rather an exploration of different perspectives around free speech.

What is the definition of free speech?

There are a number of varying definitions of free speech, but at its core, it’s about the legal right to express or seek out ideas and opinions freely without fear of censorship or legal action. Freedom of speech is a part of freedom of expression, which means that individuals have the right to express themselves in whatever way they wish.

Is free speech a human right?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created in 1948 by representatives of 50 states from the United Nations. They were created in response to the Second World War, as a way of trying to prevent such a wide-scale conflict from ever happening again.

Thirty human rights were created, and they were designed to belong to everyone in the world so that no human being would be without rights. Article 18 and 19 are the rights most closely related to freedom of speech. While article 18 states that everyone has the freedom to believe whatever they want, and practice their beliefs (including religion), article 19 states that everyone has the right to express their opinions freely, in whichever way they want.

These human rights then formed the basis for different human rights laws across the world, including article 10 of the human rights act in the UK. This article grants individuals freedom of expression without interference, but also states that there are some conditions that may mean this freedom will be interrogated, such as in the event of a national security risk.

Does freedom of speech mean you can say anything?

The short answer is no. The longer answer is that the specific law will depend on the country you’re in, but generally, there will always be exceptions to the rule. For example, in the UK’s article 10, the law states that public authorities can restrict the right to free speech if:

  • They are worried about national security or public safety
  • They want to prevent disorder or crime
  • They feel it will protect health or morals
  • They want to protect the rights and reputations of others
  • They are protecting confidential information
  • They need to maintain the authority and impartiality of judges.

What free speech means around the world

As we previously explained, freedom of speech is a universal human right, but different countries interpret it differently in their laws. We can get an idea about different attitudes to free speech by looking at the citizens of different countries, in studies such as the one done by Pew Research Centre in 2015. 

In this study, the researchers surveyed respondents from 38 different countries about their attitudes towards freedom of expression. While the U.S. unsurprisingly came out as the most supportive of free speech, other countries with a high level of support included Mexico, Venezuela, Canada and Australia. 

Some examples of countries with low levels of support for freedom of expression included Senegal, Burkina Faso, Jordan, Pakistan, and Ukraine. This research demonstrates that the principle of free speech is not a ‘one size fits all’ concept, and depends a lot on the constitution and culture of the country in question. 

Does freedom of speech apply to digital platforms?

A lot of the time, we hear about controversial opinions and statements that people have made via the internet. This is why it’s important to evaluate the role of digital platforms and social media in the debate on freedom of speech.

In our open step on freedom of speech and the internet, experts from the University of Bristol discuss how the internet has been blamed by some for enabling terrorism and extremism. This is because they are accused of providing a platform for people to promote their damaging views, and even plan attacks. 

In this way, digital platforms very much have a part to play in the free speech debate, as ultimately they must try to ensure that dangerous activity is not taking place on their platforms. However, as Pier Luigi Parcu explains in our open step on fake news, digital platforms don’t like to assume editorial responsibility for the dangerous content that exists on their sites. 

There are rare exceptions to this, such as when Twitter banned Donald Trump recently, but a bill was approved soon after that now prevents social media companies from “deplatforming” politicians this way.

This general lack of assumption of responsibility means that digital platforms don’t filter information like other media do, leaving a lot of room for fake news, unsubstantiated opinions, and even dangerous ideas. The problem is that filtering out this information would be an issue of freedom of expression, so it becomes very difficult for digital platforms to find middle ground. 

Lately, however, Facebook and Twitter have been trying to screen for fake news, which is explained in more detail in this Forbes article. The writer, Bernard Marr, states “Facebook unveiled a raft of measures designed to help keep users safe from misinformation, as well as exploitative practices. It deployed algorithms to look for false or sensationalist claims made in advertising”.