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)   


- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Ian Stubbs

    This is a very succinct and helpful clarificaiton but I think there are problems with, ”...sufficient education to enable you to articulate your views clearly”. Later you intimate this is not just about clear but also infomed articulation – have other option/views been considered? Does this imply that the uneducated should not be allowed free expression? And how do we distinguish carefully considered and articulated argument from underlying prejudice or bigotry? Some theological views on homosexuality a case in point.

    30 Oct 2009, 11:25

  2. Ian Stubbs

    ie. does freedom of expression imply a rational thinking ‘self’ and can this now be defended philosophically?

    30 Oct 2009, 11:28

  3. Graham Hiscock

    A useful clarification of some of the issues. A good place to start!

    I would like to pick up the point about the differences between what is moral and what is legal. It seems to me that there are no rational grounds for equating the two terms. Even if we accept some form of social contract theory, it does not follow that the legal system can be said to embody or represent society. Laws may or may not be morally defensible. Also let’s not forget that many (most?) of our ‘freedoms’ have been won by actively opposing the status quo and often through breaking the law.

    On balance., I think that whether or not it is legal to express a particular point of view in a particular context, tells us nothing about the morality of expressing that point of view.

    30 Oct 2009, 17:33

  4. David Hampshire

    Surely isn’t freedom of expression a cultural construct that we believe has become an ‘innate’ construct which flows from human nature? JS Mill sees freedom as underpinning a good society but isn’t that just the middle class society to which Mill belonged?

    04 Nov 2009, 14:06

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