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.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Graham Hiscock

    I’m not convinced that the principle of freedom of expression requires that all legal political parties should be invited to participate in ‘Question Time’. Taking part in a prestigious current affairs programme like this does not simply allow a group like the BNP the right to freely express their views – in a sense it legitimises them, it places the extremists on the same level as mainstream political parties. It sends the message that they are ‘just like the others’. And they are not – they are inherently opposed to the liberal principles underpinning democracy (principles such as equality, freedom).

    In contrast, I think that scientific advisers to government must be able to freely express scientific opinions; these advisers are not members of the government and so constrained by collective cabinet responsibility, and are not civil servants employed to implement policy. Their purpose is to provide impartial and honest advice – and if their honest opinion is at variance with government policy, so be it. I would argue that expert advice must be impartial – or there is no point in it.

    19 Nov 2009, 18:53

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