Freedom of speech is, to the Western world, a principal human right that must be protected by the law. Yet, to the Asian world, the freedom of speech is much less absolute, subject to the regulation of the state. Does the freedom of speech supersede other rights? Does it supersede social cohesion? Freedom of speech is no doubt an important tool, but it should not come at a cost that society is not ready to bear. Crucially, freedom of speech should be protected to the extent that it does not cause grievous harm to society. Freedom of speech is not an absolute right and should be denied in certain circumstances when it is abused. It should be protected in most instances, but where it facilitates egregious harm against society, spreads misinformation, and particularly hurts the vulnerable, such free speech no longer has a place in society.
Firstly, free speech can potentially cause grievous harm to society. In today’s polarised world, voices are becoming more strident, anti-establishment culls dominate socio-political discussions. People are becoming more vocal, particularly voices of dissent. In itself, that is not a bad thing. The problem arises when the amplification of these voices emboldens problematic subsets of ‘free speech’, such as hate speech. Hate speech is particularly pernicious because it is sectarian in nature, driving wedges between groups of people, and can prove an incredibly divisive force. Social unity is therefore threatened and can rip apart the social fabric. The unrest that would subsequently ensue is sufficiently egregious a harm for such speech to be denied. Speech that incites such divisiveness has been rejected by society and governments. Donald Trump’s role in the Capitol storming aptly reflects this. His ‘free speech’ rallied together extremist and radical right-wing Trump supporters, who fought not only to reverse the democratic process but push forth white supremacy amongst other conservative ideals. The abuse of such free speech for individual gain on Trump’s part cost massive wastage in taxpayer dollars, the loss of innocent lives, and many minorities to live in fear. Arguably, the bigoted ideas of these supporters already existed. Yet, the crucial difference here is that certain expressions of free speech embolden individuals to act on their impulses, threatening social stability. It is in this vein that Twitter banned Trump from its platform indefinitely, and the Senate brought forth impeachment charges against Trump. This highlights that our society and legal systems, as much as they try to defend free speech, prioritise social unity and security first.
Secondly, unrestricted free speech is a breeding ground for the proliferation of fake news. Fake news has been the concern of governments across the world in the last few years. Misinformation causes public fear, undermines government legitimacy, and often causes undue stress in society. Understandably, it would be mendacious to characterise all fake news as insidious in nature and created to cause harm. Many cases do arise where the fake news does not accrue significant social cost and was shared by innocent and unknowing individuals. This, however, does not discount that there is a group of individuals who will frivolously create misinformation for perverse enjoyment and the pursuit of selfish gains, abusing the protection we grant to the freedom of speech. Given that these individuals often disseminate the most attention-grabbing fake news, the extent of their impact could be massive and such freedom of speech must therefore be denied in such cases. The lack of regulation of fake news in the West proved costly in their COVID-19 pandemic fight, elucidating why such free speech ought to be restricted. The West, particularly the US, was plagued by relentless vaccine misinformation and other COVID conspiracies. Take for example QAnon which was incredibly vocal in its conspiracy claims that COVID was a ploy to keep Trump out of the office and not a true threat to society. Even if considering the view that QAnon is an anomaly, incidents of fake news cause significant vaccine hesitancy and skepticism toward government institutions. Opposition to such restrictions may argue that these large-scale crises are rare, but crucially, this lack of regulation presents a slippery slope and sets a precedent that cannot be reversed sufficiently quickly in times of crises. Free speech therefore should not be protected in such cases.
Freedom of speech should additionally be denied when it particularly hurts the vulnerable. Race of religion centric hate speech, the speech of a sexual nature toward minors in an attempt to solicit sexual favours, phishing and doxxing, among other sorts of speech, are prohibited by most states. As important as free speech may be, we must recognise that there are vulnerable individuals whom the state ought to protect. For example, they include children who are not rationally able to consent in most scenarios, the mentally handicapped, and racial-religious minorities who generally suffer microaggressions and lack the social, economic, and political capital to defend themselves. In these cases, these groups often cannot fight back or are disproportionately hurt, which the state must stand against. This restriction to free speech has been observed globally and is indicative of each state’s prioritisation of the safety of the vulnerable. For example, the penal code 298A in Singapore and Article 10 in the United Kingdom’s Human Rights Act of 1998 all put forth caveats to free speech that specifically protect minorities. The harsher laws to deter crime against children, such as section 2442(b) of Title 18 in the United States, is yet another reflection of state priorities. Such restrictions are hence principally aligned with state and social values and should be enforced.
Some may claim, conversely, that free speech is an a priori good and is crucial to self-actualisation. The underlying logic is that individuals can only live their best lives in the most meaningful way at the point where they have absolute freedom of speech. For example, individuals can engage in meaningful discourse when they can speak freely without fear of backlash, and can openly actualise their identity however they wish. Free speech is also necessary for the exchange of ideas which help inform an individual’s conception of social norms, as well as their standing relative to their society. Self-actualisation is important as it is the most individual and personal way in which a person can give value to their existence, which is crucial in leading a dignified life.
I would posit, however, that self-actualisation is not dependent on the freedom of speech, and can be accessed through many other means such as one’s talents of interest. Even if the freedom of speech is crucial to self-actualisation, the point at which we deny the freedom of speech is when it causes significant harm to society. Such speech is not the basis of an identity that the state should protect, insofar that the intentions are malicious. On balance, the right for minorities to function without the feat of bigotry in every waking moment, the right for children to be safe against predators, the right for citizens to live in a stable society that allows them to pursue their self-actualisation, cumulatively override the ability for a bigoted minority to self-actualise. There is no hesitancy that should arise in making such a trade-off. Note, however, that there is a difference between hate and discriminatory speech. All hate speech is discriminatory, but not all discriminatory speech is hate speech. Crucially, the intent must be considered in determining the nature of the speech. Any true threat to safety and intention to harm must be silenced.
This is not a world where free speech is silenced at all costs; do make no mistake of that. Dissent is valid and protected. Recognise that in most cases, protecting society and the vulnerable will not come at the cost of free speech. But when push comes to shove, protect the citizens and protect the vulnerable. A privileged white male can be vocal, openly expressing his bigotry through loudspeakers, and call it self-actualisation. But to the young Muslim girl who fears for her life walking home at night, for the single African-American mother who struggles to feed her children even on food stamps, for the refugee who lives in constant fear that he will once again be thrust into the unforgiving torment of fleeing from home, his free speech is much more than just words.
His speech is not speech we should protect. Deny free speech when it is abused.