The freedom to express an opinion without fear of being prosecuted is an important cornerstone of a free society, yet this right has a long history of suppression. Throughout history, individuals have often been punished for criticizing their rulers, or sharing ideas that challenged the establishment of their time.
The advent of the Enlightenment and subsequent rise of democracy has led to greater freedom of speech and loosening of governments’ powers of censorship. However, in countries which have suffered under the rule of more authoritarian regimes, these liberties would take much longer to materialize. Sadly, there are also countries in which the right to voice dissenting opinions is yet to become a reality, as under certain authoritarian regimes, those who criticize government policy are punished severely.
In recent years, there has been a worrying shift in favor of both increased government censorship and indeed a culture of censorship, even in countries which have historically proclaimed the virtues of free speech.
The principles behind freedom of expression
An open marketplace of ideas is a key component to any free society, meaning that all opinions are allowed to be shared and debated, with the ideas backed by the most compelling arguments gaining traction, and ideas that are irrational or unappealing being exposed to criticism. This means that individuals are free to express their opinion, regardless of how popular it may be, without fear of government persecution.
The consequences for a person’s speech would therefore be limited to having counter arguments put against their ideas. Also, in the case of extremely unpopular opinion considered objectionable by most of the individual’s peers, there may be a loss of social standing. However, these matters should not be of any concern to governments so long as there is no violence or incitement to violence involved in these arguments.
Humanity has benefited enormously from the free exchange of ideas and open debate that has been a key characteristic of much of the progress made during the past few centuries. Thinkers across many disciplines have been able to explore new theories and ideas that may at some time in history have resulted in their persecution by the establishment.
This was true, for instance, of the now accepted fact that the earth revolves around the sun (heliocentrism), and not the other way around (geocentrism). In 17th century Europe, any material promoting the idea of heliocentrism was banned, with individuals endorsing this idea tried as heretics.
For a free society to function, it is important for different political perspectives to be tolerated. No one has any right to intimidate another into silence through the use or threat of force. An environment in which people can be criminalized for expressing their point of view will only serve to promote bitterness and resentment.
Governing institutions are in no way positioned to decide what is best for free people to believe. It is up to each individual to form their own opinions by assessing the merits of the ideas they encounter. It is a grave injustice when people’s access to a vast range of differing opinions is taken from them by those who believe there should only ever be one tolerable narrative.
Recent trends opposing free speech
It is extremely problematic for anyone to be given the authority to determine which opinions are to be deemed acceptable or not. Yet, in the name of political correctness, this is a phenomenon that can easily be observed in many countries today. Governments are showing an increasing trend of shutting down discourse that they believe may be subjectively offensive to certain people.
There is an alarming tendency towards censoring opinions on controversial topics. Such action stems from a belief that it is better to shield individuals from being exposed to views and arguments they may not appreciate, as opposed to endorsing constructive dialogue.
This principle is particularly unfortunate and damaging when adopted by universities, as the purpose of higher education is to be exposed to and challenged by a wide range of ideas. Academic institutions which receive state funding would be expected to have a more neutral approach in terms of promoting any particular ideologies, yet this is often not the current practice as freedom of expression is curbed and opinions are censored.
It must not be the case that individuals are only free to speak so long as they are expressing thoughts approved by those in power. Free speech involves a degree of tolerance and mutual respect, whereby an individual may not like what someone says, but would defend their right to say it.
Why does free speech matter to SFL?
At Students For Liberty, we believe that freedom of expression is a fundamental right and should never result in persecution. This principle must be respected in any society which purports to value liberty. Naturally, there is a distinction between free speech and harassment or incitement to commit acts of violence, but an individual who is simply expressing their opinion on a topic or criticizing government policy is not committing any act of violence. Ultimately, we believe that an environment in which there is an open marketplace of ideas is the only way forward towards greater freedom.