chapter  1
17 Pages

The philosophy of free speech

Recent years have seen debates about freedom of speech and freedom of the press assume a new level or urgency and vigour, whether this is in relation to the primacy of freedom of speech in the wake of the hegemonic ambitions of Western states such as the United States, or in the West the so-called ‘clash’ of values, in which the right to offend in a ‘free society’ seems to sit uneasily with the multi-cultural and cosmopolitan make up of those societies. Within this context freedom of speech debates generally assume two main features: the first is a characteristic that refuses steadfastly to budge from first principles, principles that have been adapted from other eras into our democratic culture. Such principles state that freedom of speech, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression and freedom of the press are so central to our democratic institutions, that there can be no justification (other than the protection of individual liberty, property and the safeguarding of the public interest) for the state to intervene to curb such expression. As we will see there are a number of important exceptions to this rule, but on the

whole the argument suggests that principles of freedom of speech should remain intact; failure to heed this warning will inevitably compromise democracy and liberty.

With caveats against incitement and hate speech a democracy should protect even offensive speech on the basis that there should be space for all opinions and viewpoints however unpalatable some of these may be. Moreover, to curb such speech or expression is potentially damaging to the democratic principles and institutions which freedom of speech helps to serve. Durham-Peters (2005) uses the term ‘hard hearted liberals’ when describing those advocates who adhere to fundamental tenets of free speech doctrine. The other set of debates tend to be less fixed and offer more of a kaleidoscopic or

spectral analysis of the problem of freedom of speech. Such viewpoints suggest refinements to first principles, refinements which attempt to take into account new contexts and new ways of thinking about freedom of speech which are less rigid and much more adaptive, some would argue more relevant to twenty-first century society. The focus of this chapter, then, is to provide an introduction to the conceptual

bases of freedom of speech, and introduce the reader to the ideas that have been used to underpin the value of freedom of speech, freedom of expression and freedom of the press in the Western democratic tradition. In doing this I will set out the key themes from each of these positions and provide a conceptual overview of the area of debate. Of particular concern here will be an introduction to the range of philosophical arguments for freedom of speech that contribute to our understanding of modern notions of press and journalistic freedom in Western democratic societies. These philosophical ideas have produced principles which have helped shape our understanding of the intrinsic value of freedom of speech as a general social good in relation to servicing democratic societies, enhancing knowledge and understanding, and as a necessary component of human flourishing. In exploring these philosophical principles we are given the opportunity to scrutinise the conceptual basis of arguments for freedom of speech and highlight the tensions and contradictions that exist within and between these philosophical ideas. It should be noted at this stage that although I will provide an introduction to the

philosophical ideas and debates that relate to freedom of speech, I do not want to paint a picture of the development of freedom of speech in simplistic linear terms. In other words, though I identify certain historical and philosophical developments that pertain to debates about freedom of speech and freedom of expression, this is not a book about the inevitable march of progress and civilisation which is marked by the development of freedom of thought and expression. In other words this book is not a restatement or defence of the Whig interpretation1 of the development of liberty of thought and expression. Rather in examining the philosophical foundations of freedom of speech in the West, I am drawing attention to the philosophical grounding on which our contemporary understanding of freedom of the press is framed. Nor does this chapter assert a ‘great thinkers’ approach to the topic. Certainly individuals and their ideas are identified, but this should also be seen in the context of other salient historical factors as will become evident in Chapter 2. The chapter will proceed as follows: first, I will provide an introduction to liberalism

and its philosophical foundations. This is necessary, as liberalism makes by far the

most significant theoretical contribution to our contemporary understanding of freedom of speech. In outlining liberalism in this way, I am therefore attempting to conceptually frame the main arguments for free speech that the chapter then moves on to explore. The arguments examined are: the argument relating to the operation of a fully functioning democracy; the argument relating to the advance of truth and knowledge; and the argument that relates to the flourishing of human liberty. The chapter concludes by emphasising the fundamental dislocation between freedom of speech and freedom of the press which will then be examined in greater detail in Chapter 2.