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November 13, 2009

Response: Freedom of Expression Part 3

Here is the final part of our discussion of freedom of expression - a few questions to think about when considering whether there should ever be limits on freedom of expression, and if so, why.  Now we have had a chance to reflect, I would be very interested to find out, either via your blog comments or tweets, whether you think the  Question Time panel should in principle include elected members of all legal political parties and/or whether you think scientific advisers to the Government can say, in any context of their choosing, what they believe to be the scientific truth without reprisal.

1)  What is the scope of 'expression'?  Does it  or should it include, for instance: pornographic displays (themselves very difficult to define, as we may discuss at a later date!); the wearing of a religious symbol; wearing an armband; burning a flag or an effigy?

2)  How important is it to distinguish the restriction of speech from the regulation of speech?

3) How much of a difference does context make? e.g the age of the audience; the time of day; the occasion of a funeral or a satirical television programme?

4) Should we distinguish legal from moral limits? 

5) Clearly most of the debates centre on whether the alleged harm caused by the expression (eg. to personal safety or national security) outweighs the right to freedom of expression (if such there is) or the benefits resulting from freedom of expression (see Part 2).  But are rights and goods commensurable in this way?

6)  In any case, how can one tell what harms have been prevented by freedom of expression?  The crimes the speaker would have committed if s/he had not been able to vent her/his feelings in words or a visual demonstration?  The psychological damage the speaker would have suffered if s/he had not been able to give vent to their feelings and thoughts? 

7)  When freedom of speech (as opposed to the broader freedom of expression) is being discussed, it is sometimes defended by the argument that speech is not action, and it is actions that cause harm.  Is this a meaningful distinction?

8) Suppose it can be proved that the speech incites the action?  How easy is it to prove such a link?

9) Suppose the speech itself causes intense distress?

10)  Suppose the speech defames character and thereby causes economic or other loss?  (Libel laws certainly recognize this as a legitimate limit on freedom of speech.)

11)  Suppose the speech invades privacy?

As I said, I would be very interested to hear your views on the two recent debates concerning freedom of expression mentioned above.

Next week, with many of us feeling tensions between the credit crunch and the approach of festive shopping, we'll look  at the role money plays in the good life - how best to make it, invest it and spend it.

  


November 06, 2009

Response: Freedom of Expression Part 2

In response to the comments on last week's blog, I CERTAINLY did not mean to suggest that the less educated should be denied freedom of expression; I simply meant that denying people education can sometimes - clearly not always - make it more difficult for them to make full use of e.g access to parliament and the media i.e genuine freedom may involve not merely being permitted to do something, but also being able to develop the tools to do it effectively.  In what sense am I 'free' to buy food if I have no money?

This week we're going to look briefly at four of the arguments which have been put forward in favour of freedom of expression.

1)  Pursuit of truth (see J.S.Mill On Liberty 1859; Milton Areopagitica 1644).

The idea here is that truth is better served by a free and open exchange and discussion of ideas and information.  This process also needs to be ongoing: Mill, for instance, argues that even a true belief is liable to become dead dogma, rather than a genuine and understood conviction, if it is not challenged. 

- It follows from this that freedom of expression is only valuable if truth can be shown to be valuable.  Furthermore, if it is argued that truth, even if valuable, is not always the overriding value in every circumstance, then there could be then be arguments for limiting freedom of expression if it e.g. compromised public security or private peace of mind.  (More of this next week)

-  Is it really the case that freedom of expression always leads to truth and understanding?  Clearly not, but it could be argued that open debate is more likely to be conducive to truth than censorship.

- What of those forms of expression that are not even aimed at truth - that are intended to create beauty alone, for example?

2) Fundamental to democracy

In this case the idea might be that each person subject to democratic decisions should be entitled to have a voice in the making of those decisions.

- The above might hold, in different ways, in both participatory and representative democracies.  It could be argued that in representative democracies freedom of expression is important in order that the political representatives know what the people they are representing think and feel.

- Freedom of expression might be thought vital for effective opposition in a democracy, and for checks on power.

- BUT, if the case for freedom of expression rests on democratic ideals, then will there not be situations in which the voices of the majority effectively silence the voices of the minority/minorities?

- ALSO a democratic majority might actually legislate to limit freedom of expression, or at any rate certain forms of it.  The thinking here might be that it is O.K to have limits on freedom of expression within a democracy, providing those limits are democratically authorized.  But one might also think that there is a perhaps inevitable tension here, if freedom of expression is thought to be crucial for the running of a genuine democracy, as suggested above.

- If one is defending freedom of expression on democratic ideals, then does this mean that the only kind of expression which can be defended is that which is needed for participation in the democratic process?

- If one is defending freedom of expression on democratic principles, does this mean that it is not important in a non-democratic framework? 

3) A fundamental right?

See, for example, Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the First Amendment of the U.S Constitution.

- This, of course, will depend in turn on whether you think the notion of 'rights' makes any sense.

4) Fundamental to psychological well-being?

- There might be a deep need for (instead of/as well as a right to) freedom of expression, as a vital ingredient of a deep need for liberty in general.

- Hearing the views of others is a key part of treating them with respect and according them dignity (a point which can also be made in terms of a defence based on rights). 

- 3) and 4) raise the issue of whether freedom of expression is to be defended on the grounds of its rightness, or its goodness, or both.  

That's enough for this week!  Next time we'll look at possible limits on freedom of expression.

Have a great weekend.


October 30, 2009

Response: Freedom of Expression Part 1

Hi there - this is the first of my responses to the question about whether there are any circumstances in which freedom of expression should be curtailed.  The idea is not to attempt to write a complete essay (impossible in any case with such a huge topic).  The plan is simply to ask a few further questions and make a few suggestions, to enable people (particularly those new to philosophy) to explore the subject further for themselves.  The reason that I leave a week between posing a question and giving a response is to allow people a chance to think about the topic for themselves first, without mediation from me.  In other words, I am trying to encourage active thought and participation in debate, rather than simply the passive imbibing of ideas!

So here goes.  To get a grip on the question, we first need to understand better what 'freedom of expression' might mean, then (in Part 2) look at a variety of arguments which might support it, and then (Part 3) consider arguments which might support limits for it.

Part 1: What does 'freedom of expression' involve?

- Involves written and spoken words; non-verbal forms of communication such as pictures, symbols, gestures, cartoons, TV footage

-  Could also apply to the editorial policy of e.g. a newspaper, TV or radio programme or website, academic journal, purchasing policy of a library

- 'Freedom' might mean that no law or person or body of persons is preventing you from expressing yourself in the first place

- It might also imply that you are not going to e.g suffer violence or lose your job if you do express yourself 

- It might also imply that you have a) the opportunity to express yourself e.g access to parliament and the media; b)sufficient education to enable you to articulate your views clearly; c) being listened to when you do articulate them 

c) can be an issue in a democracy, where the exercise of free speech by the majority (or someone in the majority) can sometimes inhibit the exercise of free speech by a minority (or someone in a minority)

- All the above conditions can be met, and yet the person may still not be thought to be expressing their own views: we may feel they have been brainwashed, or at least not made sufficiently aware of alternative positions (some of these objections can be met by considering what is involved in the education in b) above)

- 'Freedom of expression' can imply the freedom to hear/see what someone else is expressing as well as the right to express your own views

- Context and audience are important things to think about: do we want freedom of expression in all contexts, and in front of all audiences?

- We will also need to think about whether there are or should be differences between what is legal and what is moral re. freedom of speech

That's enough for now!  In Part 2), we will look at a few of the arguments in favour of freedom of expression, which will get us into considering whether it is a 'right', or a 'good' or both.

A couple of reading suggestions to get you started:

Nigel Warburton Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford)

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty (Lots of editions; first published 1859)   

 


October 28, 2009

Question: Freedom of Expression

Question: Are there any circumstances in which freedom of expression should be curtailed?  If so, on what grounds?  If not, why not?

Feel free to post your comments on this below, and I'll post a response this Friday (30th)


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