[Home]FreeSpeech

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Sometimes people refer to FreeSpeech in an explanation, or as an illustration of a point they want to make. One such example is the ambiguity of the term "free" in FreeSoftware -- people say "Think Free Speech, not FreeBeer!" -- But what does that mean?

The popularity of the term Free Speech is something the Internet community inherits from its American roots. The FirstAmendment says:

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 Universal Declaration of Human Rights covers similar ground in articles 18 and 19:

18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 29 places some limits on these (and other rights): they are subject to such "limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society", and "may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations".

Similarly, article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, states:

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.

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.

Thus, in many other countries of the world, however (OpenSociety or not), Free Speech has a less prominent place than in the USA. There is censorship to ban criticism of the government, ban pornography, ban fascist propaganda, etc. To people living in such a country, the term Free Speech might not carry the exact same connotation as to a citizen of the United States.

But even within the US, things are not as clear-cut. When the US intervened in Afghanistan in 2002, for example, a lot of people criticized the approach taken by the Bush administration. Following some protest marches and discussions, a right-wing organization published a list of "non-patriotic" public figures. When challenged, they said that the right to Free Speech does not include a protection from criticism. To some, this sort of list-making is very troubling -- it could be read as a call to hate crimes, or at least intimidation. Others would claim that they were public figures to begin with, and they made public statements, so they should expect public criticism. The questions is not easy to answer, and therefore what is and is not referred to by the term Free Speech remains open to discussion.


As set forth above, the ideal of FreeSpeech is peculiar to Americans and is grounded in the United States Constitution. However, even in the context of the First Amendment, the United States Supreme Court has created a number of qualifications and exceptions to the unequivocal statement that "Congress shall make no law. . ." First and foremost among these qualifications is the requirement that "state action" be involved in the abridgment of FreeSpeech before a person has standing to seek relief in a United Stated District Court. Beyond this initial burden of proof, the Court has distinguished "fully protected speech" from other forms of lesser-protected speech, such as "commercial speech," as well as stating that many forms of speech -- i.e., e.g., obscenity and child pornography -- are "unprotected speech." In other words, many restrictions on FreeSpeech are totally legal under the Supreme Court's interpretation of the First Amendment.

All this raises the question of why FreeSpeech is supposed to be a GoodThing. The reason that the founding fathers of the United States considered FreeSpeech to be so important was because it allowed the citizens of a democracy/republic to criticize the government and hold government actors accountable. However, in a much larger context, FreeSpeech is associated with the metaphorical "marketplace of ideas." As such, advocates of FreeSpeech tend to use arguments that parallel those of free market libertarians. -- DavidPrenatt


As noted above, speech can be a form of violence, and some of the worst abuses are designed to be effective but deniable. To paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes: "The right to flap my lips ends where the other man's ear begins". -- NathanielThurston


Discussion

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