Free Speech Absolutism by Stuart Walter Hilton

In modern political debate there are many issues that seem so inflammatory and beliefs that are understood to be too harmful that some people would consider censoring these beliefs to prevent their negative effects. Beliefs systems and ideas that are problematically perceived can be touted as harmful for the rest of the population and if enough people perceive it so, there can be a push toward making expression of those particular beliefs illegal. Despite the fact that some belief systems can be recognized by the majority of people as harmful and detrimental to society, the practice of free speech still allots for the expression of these harmful beliefs unconditionally. As John Locke would espouse, the use of free speech to portray, express, and test different ideas is the very mechanism that which a free society can functionally debate to understand the best ideas possible.

In modern times it seems that freedom of speech has become something that society has decided has its limits. In recent years, some people have proposed that certain views that individuals hold are just too harmful to society to be perpetuated and have proposed limits on freedom of speech as a result. In the public sphere many individuals, not politicians, have advocated for suppression of speech if it falls under the category of “hate speech”. “Hate speech is speech that singles a group out because of some defining characteristic like race or religion. The idea is that, because the ideas perpetrated could potentially bring individuals to commit violent acts towards these targeted individuals, speech should be censored and suppressed as a result. Because the idea of “hate speech” is not legally defined, it would up to those legislating to determine a definition of the concept. The concept is so subjective that to practice defining what kind of speech is legal and isn’t could potentially censor ideas that are factual or even truer, more broadly. Once any speech is suppressed, all speech can be suppressed, and often times during censoring of wrong ideas, right ones fall into the category of illegal and thus are suppressed as well, depending on who creates the standards and makes the laws. Locke understood this risk and likewise proposed that all speech should be permissible because of this.

Another instance in which the issue of free speech has fallen under scrutiny in recent years is in Canada. Because of the recent recognition of the transgender movement, a new bill has been put into place to protect these individuals from discrimination. While the basis for this bill was done with good intentions and an effort to reduce discrimination toward transgender individuals, it does come with complications. As part of the bill’s defined discrimination, it includes not using proper pronouns of individuals as discrimination and as a result, those who violate that could end up in jail if they refuse to pay the fine associated with the crime of mis-gendering. Not only does this bill restrict freedom of speech but it also dictates speech, not only outlawing certain kinds of speech but making individuals use certain, specific words.

Like Locke expressed in his writings, speech should be absolute and any restriction of it could end up restricting actual truth. Free speech should, to an extent,  inherently be about offending someone. In the exchange of ideas, one is always risking offending somebody. Disagreement and debate can be offensive after all, but that is how we find the truth in a free society. Locke understood that if we censor ideas that we deem offensive, we can censor anything because to someone somewhere, anything is offensive. For this reason, free speech should be absolute.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for The UC Newsletter

%d bloggers like this: