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Debate: Restrictions on freedom of speech

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Is it ever right for Governments to restrict freedom of speech?

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Marc Whitmore. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.


Background and Context of Debate:

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. (1st Amendment to the US constitution – 15 December 1791) 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. (1.) Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information an 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. (Article X, European Convention on Human Rights, Rome, 4.XI.1950) Freedom of speech and censorship are often phrased as opposite sides of a continuum th

Ambiguity: Is "free speech" too ambiguous a concept, requiring government clarification?


Free speech is an inherently ambiguous concept that requires definition and interpretation; Government is the obvious place for such clarifications to be made.


Governments cannot be trusted as arbiters of free speech; it is a God-given and inalienable right: Many political theorists argue that checks and balances need to be put in place in order to prevent Governmental abuse. The right to freedom of speech is too important to leave in the hands of Government. An independent judiciary, or politically-independent body for assessing such circumstances is the only place that can effectively guarantee.

Allowing government censorship threatens to allow a tyranny of the majority: "After all, the practical reason why when the power is once in the hands of the people, a majority are permitted, and for a long period continue, to rule is not because they are most likely to be in the right, nor because this seems fairest to the minority, but because they are physically the strongest" - CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE, H D Thoreau. Tyranny of the majority is as good a reason as any to prevent Government from being involved in censorship - the majority of the population may be anti-homosexuality, or anti-immigrant, or indeed pro-genetically modified foods. In a healthy democracy it is vital that smaller groups be heard, and there is no way to guarantee these voices if the Government can restrict free speech.

Acting on speech: Does "bad" speech lead to "bad" acts?


Speech acts lead to physical acts. Thus pornography, hate speech and political polemic are causally linked to rape, hate crimes, and insurrection.


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.

Exposing "bad" views by allowing them to be voiced increases the likelihood that they will be defeated: Exposing pornography, hate speech and political polemic (extreme nationalism etc.) to society increase the likelihood that it will be discredited and defeated, rather than strengthened through persecution.

  • This is Milton’s argument from "Areopagitica" (1644) - truth will combat error.

National Security: Is a government justified in suppressing freedom of speech in the interest of national security?


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.

Irrespective of its US provenance, we recognise that "the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." (Schenck v. United States, 3 March, 1919). Thus shouting fire in a crowded cinema when there is no fire, and you know it, is wrong. We accept this limit on free speech, therefore the principle is conceded.


The ends justifying the means is a common pit-fall of allowing governments to suppress freedom of speech: United States President Richard Nixon, in the Watergate scandal for example, attempted to justify the violation of multiple laws of privacy and property in the name of national security.

Religious speech: Should governments protect certain religious groups from speech that is antithetical to their views?


Some intellectual views are antithetical to beliefs held by major religions, and should be protected against: In order to protect the religious from these views, we should prevent people from saying these offensive things.


Although some views may be expressed that might are contrary to religious teaching, we must defend the rights of the non-religious within any society.

Protecting minors: Should governments protect minors from speech they deem to be potentially harmful or corrupting to these particular groups?


Minors lack the judgment to filter through obscene and graphic materials, making it important that governments help do so:




  • This house would restrict freedom of speech
  • This house would muzzle the press
  • This house would censor the Internet
  • This house would ban books

In legislation, policy, and the real world:

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