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.