Should we all be allowed to say what we want, and where, and about whosoever we want? What are the limits to free speech? And who should decide where these limits are set? If we set a limit of freedom of speech then does it follow that there will be an infringement of other human rights?
These questions are sparked by a debate I listened to in Chicago last month between a lawyer and a radical. It was lively but there was little meeting of minds or hearts. I wanted to stand somewhere in the middle, which when there is crossfire is about the worst place in the world to be.
Let us ground this in a real situation. An American soldier, killed in Iraq, is being buried in his home town. His family and friends are deeply upset. A right wing religious group decide to gain publicity by protesting against the liberal state over its acceptance of gay and lesbian partnerships. They contact a local TV station and position themselves near the church. The protest is disruptive and invasive. They claim the right to free speech – the family are left feeling violated.
So – everyone has a right to a view and to express it. But there is a time and a place and therefore a limit on the freedom. Hate speech can incite violence – and while the desire to have one’s view heard is a natural one (and upheld by law in most cases) there must be some kind of protection against the invasion of privacy. No one has the right to inflict emotional distress with words and actions that insult.
This is a fascinating area of legal and philosophical thought that embraces some fundamental questions about our life together.
- What kind of community do we want to or choose to live in?
- How much diversity of perspective can we tolerate?
- If those in South Africa had not protested would they have secured equal rights?
- Unless we have freedom to think and speak how are we to search for the truth?
- Does our free speech ever diminish the human dignity of others by how we think or speak about them?
- What kind of speech promotes the public peace?
This area touches on how we think about community and society – how we order our lives economically, socially, religiously even.
Words are dangerous. We should use them advisably! Free speech but with what limits?