Freedom of speech is often considered to be one of the most basic tenets of democracy. As a fundamental right it is enshrined in documents such as the Bill of Rights in the United States, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights: 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. 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.
United Nations General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948:
Article 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.
This is expanded on in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights
(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 the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
Freedom of speech and censorship are often phrased as opposite sides of a continuum that balance personal freedom with societal duty. Famous as a battle-ground between Left and Right in the United States, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, issues of free speech are often championed by human rights organisations around the world seeking to support those fighting against repressive regimes (examples include Aung San Suu Kyi, Vaclav Havel, and Lech Walesa). The Pentagon Papers (1971) in the United States were the collected criticisms of the United States strategy during the Vietnam War. Distributed widely to newspapers, they were published despite attempts by the government to suppress their publication.
Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Ptolemaic & Copernican was prohibited by the Catholic Church until 1835 containing, as it did, the heretical doctrine that the earth rotated about the sun. Other books of note which have been banned include Voltaire’s Candide (US 1930), Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (UK 1792), Jack London’s Call of the Wild (Italy 1929), Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (South Africa 1955), E for Ecstasy (Australia 1994), Ernst Zündel’s Did Six Million Really Die? (Canada 1980). In 1925 in the state of Tennessee USA, John Scopes was convicted for teaching Darwin’s Origin of Species. John Locke's philosophical Essay Concerning Human Understanding was expressly forbidden to be taught at Oxford University in 1701.
The issue is one of much contemporary interest in the developed world, where new technologies have opened up unprecedented access to materials which governments could previously keep censored in a relatively efficient way – pornography, bomb manufacturing instructions etc. have become available on the world-wide web. In general, however, the issue tends to fall into categories of book censorship, speech censorship, video censorship, newspaper censorship, and political expression of one description or another.
 United Nations General Assembly, ‘Declaration of Human Rights’, 10 December 1948, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/
 Council of Europe, European Convention on Human Rights, Rome, 4.XI.1950, http://www.echr.coe.int/NR/rdonlyres/D5CC24A7-DC13-4318-B457-5C9014916D7A/0/ENG_CONV.pdf
 Linder, Douglas O., ‘State v. John Scopes (“The Monkey Trial”)’, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/scopes/evolut.htm
 The Online Books Page, ‘Banned Books Online’, http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/banned-books.html
"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." Shouting fire in a crowded cinema when there is no fire, and you know it, is wrong because doing so creates a clear and present danger of harm to others.
Likewise, in the US (and many other countries) there is no protection for ‘false commercial speech’ (i.e. misrepresentation) and the contents of adverts can be regulated in order to ensure that they are truthful and do not deceive consumers. On that basis, restrictions can be placed on how tobacco products may be advertised, and people may be prevented from promoting illegal and fraudulent tax advice.
The argument leads to a slippery slope. It is one thing to regulate speech on matters that are objectively verifiable, quite another to restrict the permissible scope of opinion and expression. Even then, the state should be extremely cautious about declaring a state of objective fact. People taking advice on matters such as tax always take the risk that that advice may turn out to be bad, the amount of risk a person is willing to take is entirely a matter of personal responsibility and not a matter that the government should intervene in.
We need to protect minors (those under the age of majority) from exposure to obscene, offensive or potentially damaging materials. While this would be a restriction on the freedom of speech it should be something that the government is responsible for and we would all agree needs some kind of restriction or regulation.
Arguments that invoke censorship of materials for minors are just that - arguments for the censorship of materials for minors. They do not concede the general principal that censorship is good because until the age of majority the state has a duty to respect (and to take limited measures to ensure others respect) the parental responsibility of those bringing up children.
The Government must protect its citizens from foreign enemies and internal enemies - thus freedom of speech can be acceptably curtailed during times of war in order to prevent propaganda and spying which might undermine the national interest. This has happened in almost all states during times of war, during the second world war the United States even had a government department dedicated to it; The Office of Censorship.
The ends do not justify the means. The government may well wish to suppress publication of information that would be prejudicial to its success in the next elections or its war campaign, but it’s in the public interest to know about their dirty dealings or illegal activities.
Moreover secrecy in the name of security often leads to injustice; the rendition of British residents and secret evidence given at control order hearings are but a couple of examples.
Speech acts lead to physical acts. Thus pornography, hate speech and political polemic are causally linked to rape, hate crimes, and insurrection.
Both scientific creationism and Holocaust denial have serious, and dangerous, hidden agendas. Deniers of the Nanjing Massacre believe that the Japanese did nothing wrong in the Second World War and continue to claim that it was a war of liberation against western colonialism - feeding Japanese militarism today. Holocaust deniers, in claiming that a Jewish conspiracy is responsible for the widespread belief that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, are closely allied to anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism. We should not allow such views the legitimacy which being debated gives them.
Society is self-regulating. The link between speech acts and physical acts is a false one - people who commit hate crimes are likely to have read hate speech, people who commit sex crimes are likely to have watched pornography but not necessarily the other way around. Viewers of pornography and readers of hate speech are therefore not incited to commit anything they otherwise would not do.
If the advocates of these views have hidden agendas, all the more reason to expose them in public. The fact that Holocaust denial leads to neo-Nazism will, for most people, be one more compelling argument against it; creationism’s necessarily literalistic approach to scripture can easily be shown to be ridiculous. Again, the truth has nothing to fear, and the evil implications of falsehood should not be covered up by refusing to engage with it.
Free speech is not merely a ‘nice thing to have’, it is a mechanism which brings real, tangible benefits to society by allowing people to challenge orthodoxy. States that do not allow orthodox beliefs to be challenged stagnate and decline.
Reducing restrictions on free speech to ‘special exceptions’ frustrates the whole point because it is precisely those special exceptions where established truth needs to be challenged. This is not restricted to matters of pure opinion – the modern scientific process relies upon professionals being able to vehemently disagree on matters of crucial fact. “Real science depends for its progress on continual challenges to the current state of always-imperfect knowledge.”
Society is entitled to define itself on certain issues – otherwise what does it stand for? Community is only possible among like-minded individuals. It is likewise entitled to tell those who refuse to accept the consensus on those issues to ‘lump it or leave it’.
It is also absurd to suggest that all challenges to orthodoxy are legitimate. Denial of atrocities is usually a mask for racial intolerance. Denial of established scientific truths in the public world is not usually about progress but rather about ignoring the evidence to promote theologically based worldviews. Society has a vested interest in suppressing those movements.
Whatever the potential harms that may arise from unrestrained free speech; they pale in comparison to the harm that arises from banning an individual from freely expressing his own mind.
It is a matter of the upmost individual liberty that one’s thoughts and feelings are one’s own, and that individuals are free to express those thoughts and feelings openly. A prohibition on this liberty is a harm of incalculable value – it strikes right to the core of what it means to be in individual person.
Liberty is an intangible right – restrictions on liberty can be equally intangible and entirely transitory based on the circumstances.
What we know though is that real harm is derived from defaming an individual’s reputation, broadcasting racist abuse and shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. It is wrong to ignore real, tangible harm in favour of preventing fanciful and intangible harms.
Council of Europe, European Convention on Human Rights, Rome, 4.XI.1950,
Hanyok, Robert J., ‘Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and The American Press and Radio in World War II’, Studies in Intelligence, Vol 46, No. 3,
Linder, Douglas O., ‘State v. John Scopes (“The Monkey Trial”)’,
Sarewitz, Daniel, ‘The voice of science: let’s agree to disagree’, Nature, Vol 487, No.7, 5 October 2011,
The Online Books Page, ‘Banned Books Online’,
United Nations General Assembly, ‘Declaration of Human Rights’, 10 December 1948,
United States Congress, ‘1st Amendment to the US constitution’ 15 December 1791,
U.S. Supreme Court, Lorillard Tobacco Co v Reilly, AG of Massachusetts, 533 U.S. 525, 2001,
U.S. Supreme Court, Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 1919,