The Peak (Malaysia) - - The Road Ahead -

Is free speech an ab­so­lute right?

Ar­ti­cle 19 of the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Hu­man Rights of 1948 states: “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.” Since then, free­dom of speech has been fur­ther en­shrined in, for ex­am­ple, the In­ter­na­tional Covenant on Civil and Po­lit­i­cal Rights (1966), the Euro­pean Con­ven­tion on Hu­man Rights (1950) and the Amer­i­can Con­ven­tion on Hu­man Rights (1969).

Free speech has been one of the most vo­cif­er­ously de­fended hu­man right, yet it is also be­com­ing one of the most vex­a­tious, es­pe­cially in light of re­cent events around the world. White su­prem­a­cists in the United States, for in­stance, claimed the right of free speech to es­pouse racism, while oth­ers have claimed the man­tle as a right to vil­ify mi­nori­ties. And this without go­ing into the hate screed that pop­u­lates the In­ter­net.

For all its ide­al­ism, free­dom of speech has rarely been an ab­so­lute right. Lim­i­ta­tions on free speech have been around for as about long as there has been speech. For mat­ters of na­tional se­cu­rity or pub­lic har­mony, for ex­am­ple, gov­ern­ments have tried to mod­er­ate pub­lic dis­course. For all the dec­la­ra­tions and con­ven­tions that cher­ish the free­dom of speech, there have been just as many laws that pre­scribe cen­sor­ship. Many so­ci­eties reg­u­late against, for want of a bet­ter phrase, hate speech. The flip side of the coin, of course, is that laws against hate speech can just as eas­ily be used against other forms of free speech.

While the prin­ci­ple of it is worth striv­ing for, the re­al­ity is that ab­so­lute free speech is a tricky path. Like it or not, there has al­ways been a line where this free­dom stops short of. Ab­so­lute free speech means ev­ery­one can hold and voice what­ever they be­lieve in, and that ex­tends as well to, say, the white su­prem­a­cists who be­lieve their com­mu­nity or coun­try has no place for a per­son of colour. Deny­ing them the right to ex­press this be­lief is, like it or not, cen­sor­ship, which no de­fender of ab­so­lute free­dom of speech can rightly ad­vo­cate.

This is a para­dox we have a grap­ple with – if we in­sist that ev­ery hu­man be­ing has the right to free­dom of speech, we will need to put up with words that might go against ev­ery­thing we be­lieve in.

Ab­so­lute free­dom of speech means ev­ery­one has the right to voice their be­liefs, re­gard­less of how of­fen­sive they are.

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