Defending freedom of speech

Ron Paul, a former U.S. Congressman and former Republican presidential candidate (2008 and 2012), said about freedom of expression:

“Freedom of expression does not exist for us to discuss the weather: we have freedom of expression to discuss controversial issues.”

What is called “freedom of the press” is indeed only freedom of expression: the right to express oneself freely belongs to individuals, not to groups. It is as real for a journalist as it is for a blogger, as it is for a citizen who wants to express himself or herself.

There are two direction when it comes to interpreting what is freedom of expression; and they are more than just semantic differences. One is the one practised by French legislation: freedom of expression is a freedom established by the State. In this trend, the State is justified in prohibiting certain acts of expression since they were outside the framework defined by the State itself. The other trend defines freedom of expression as the prohibition for the State to put in place restrictions on freedom of expression. This definition is applied in the United States, and it was also the definition of the Enlightenment. France owes its liberal democracy to those who are sceptical about the power of the state.

There are, of course, a whole host of arguments (the majority of which are emotional) that advocate a limit to freedom of expression. They advise to remain pragmatic, that there is a “limit to what can be said”.

Indeed, there is a limit to what can be said, but the important thing is to decide whether we think we are approaching this definition on the part of social norms or on the side of the law. A social norm would be, for example, that you do not have the right to be rude, because otherwise you would be the victim of social repercussions. The attentive reader will wonder whether the definition of the social norm and its sanction aren’t very vague. And indeed, what is acceptable to say and not to say, as well as the reaction to your words, depends entirely on those around you. The same problem arises for the law.

If you admit that freedom of expression has a limit, and that it is the State’s responsibility to define it, you would be a victim of the definition of its limit as well as the definition of its sanction. For example, a socialist parliamentary majority may agree with your definition of a limit on freedom of expression, but a far-right majority would challenge the current limits and impose new ones. Donald Trump in the United States will have difficulty imposing his proposals for restrictions on press freedom, because the First Amendment to the American Constitution does not allow the state to legislate on speech. Marine Le Pen, attributed by a parliamentary majority, could legislate on freedom of speech, since the constitutional protections aren’t thorough enough.

The question of freedom of expression is therefore not a question of your tolerance of words that you do not like, it is your vision of the role of the State: are you ready to grant your politicians the power to legislate on words; words spoken, words written, or drawings?

If you say no, then you are truly defending freedom of expression.

This article was first published by Values4Europe.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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