Freedom of Speech: Limited or Limitless?

Be careful what you saythe world listens

It’s 1pm. An inebriated man logs onto an anonymous account and starts spewing stereotypes about different kinds of people. He attacks men, women, the elderly, the young…no one is spared. When challenged, he simply says, “I did nothing wrong—freedom of speech means I have the right to say what I want to.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem. We live in a world where the phrase ‘freedom of speech’ is carelessly tossed about like used cigarettes on shoddy sidewalks. Believe it or not, this is the same society where a message can be sent to thousands with the click of a button, and each venom-laced word has the power to poison our minds against other groups of people.

Perhaps this is due to the evasive nature of ‘freedom’ when our lives are constantly overflowing with one restriction after the next. How can we truly be free if we are chained down by concepts like ‘governmental laws’, ‘social contracts’ and ‘unspoken rules’? These aren’t bad things, of course, yet they may seem to contradict the essence of being free.

This same knowledge should be applied to ‘freedom of speech’. It isn’t necessarily a complete and utter freedom without any limits, nor are your words confined to the tip of your tongue as you are allowed to state no other opinion than that which is approved by a murderous dictator. As with most abstract concepts regarding morality and liberty, freedom of speech exists on a spectrum. It sits near the center, in between the extremes of censorship and frank, undiplomatic words.

Definition of Free Speech

Begin with what you know and work from there

The official definition of free speech states that it is ‘the legal right to express one’s opinions freely’. Expression, however, is hardly the sword of angels. It is a weapon that can be wielded by friend and foe alike. For example, if an influential person spreads false rumours about a political figure before an election, no doubt a form of expression, would there not be consequences? Would ‘freedom of speech’ be a strong enough shield to endure against the bullets of the judicial system? Hypotheticals, of course, can only lead us so far when there are numerous variables to take into account.

Fortunately, free speech can be better understood if we rule out its evil doppelganger—hate speech. Despite glaring differences, both parts of this duo are often mistaken for the other. Hate speech is usually categorized as verbal or written expression that threatens, discriminates, or promotes violence against specific groups of people. It is not a socially acceptable form of expression for obvious reasons, especially when those words are used to maintain an oppressive system over minorities or further perpetuate harmful stereotypes that only serve to amplify hatred between different people.

Saying that hate speech is dangerous is an understatement. You will feel it rip through your entire being, leaving a nasty gash where self-assurance once was. Your confidence will be shredded, scattered, and swept away by the wind. Everything about your identity would seem to portray you as the weaker gender, the inferior race, the undesirable type. And yes, you know the ideal world would not involve segregation, hostility or identity superiority of any sort. It is common knowledge that no group of people are inherently better or worse than others. Yet, words have the power to cut deeper than any blade, mainly because the wounds it leaves are invisible.

What This Means For Us

We all have our journeys and destinations

It may help to think of both types of speech as a picture of a blurry map. Numerous debates would undoubtedly occur as to where the true boundaries lie, and depending on one’s experience, they may have different perspectives as to what various signs represent. The ‘land’ part of the map represents that which is socially acceptable—generally, the closer you are to the centre, the more likely everyone would agree that your actions are morally right and falls under the category of exercising freedom of speech. When you get to the edge of the map where land and sea begins to blur, you have arrived at the murky territories. Your actions will be seen as controversial, where some would classify it as justified under freedom of speech, others would take it to be hate speech. It is best to avoid venturing these uncertain grounds if possible.

Guard your words with fortresses of benevolence. Free speech is not synonymous to being free from consequences. If your words cause the removal of another group’s freedom, whether directly or indirectly, it should not be classified as free speech. 

Let’s envision a scenario: An old woman is seized by her arms and dragged to a room without any windows. No matter how she protests and begs for freedom, she is confined in the prison, at the mercy of her captors. They mock her for who she is, disregarding the fact that she is human.

Chances are, you felt some pity for the woman. She is the victim, oppressed and silenced by the harmful ideas tossed around about ‘her kind’. Hate speech does not elevate anyone—rather, it drags down the demolisher as well as the demolished. 

Yet, what if I were to reveal that the lady is a murderer, ending lives with every grin from her wrinkled face? Does she deserve freedom when taking away the freedom of others? Perspective can change. Facts can be obscured. Yet, at the end of the day, people subconsciously form decisions and judgements without knowing the full story. It is simply the way our brains work, filling in the gaps as it isn’t possible to know everything before making a decision (or else choosing whether or not to have a burger for lunch would be a nightmare).

So I implore you not to condemn unless you’re certain, not to vilify unless it’s verified, and not to stereotype when you don’t know their story.

By: Isabel Lee

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