Free Speech as a Human Right

[Cross-posted from OR318]

The two main arguments governments, and their supporters, make against free speech are these. First, that the outlawed speech is immoral. An example of this might be a blogger in Egypt who claims that Islam is a false religion or a blogger in the United States who maintains that killing people involved in overseas military operations is justified.

The second, and I think more common, argument is that allowing unfettered speech creates chaos that would significantly harm, and possibly ultimately destroy, a nation or society.

Neither rationale justifies the prohibition of speech because both are specious. There is, in fact, no legitimate justification for such a prohibition, because freedom of speech is not a cultural artifact, but rather a human right. By human right I mean that the need to express oneself, both on an individual and collective level, is a function of the human psyche, regardless of culture, subculture, geography, religion or even time. Try to think of a group or an era in which mankind did not attempt to express what was within its minds and hearts.

It is certainly possible that this impulse is written either into our DNA or our souls, but there is an easier way to look at how and why we speak.

Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it who fetters it in verse.

John Donne

Think of the last time you have found yourselves overwhelmed by your lives, whether by Life writ large or just by the flood of daily minutiae. How did you attempt to come to terms with it? If you were attempting to get a hold on a single day, one which contained too many things that you needed to do, perhaps you made a list. “First I’ll go to the grocery store, then I’ll go to the government building, then I’ll pick my child up from school,” and so on.

On a more “existential” scale, perhaps you wrote down your feelings in a diary, or had some tea with a friend and talked it out.

In other words, when faced with the crushing chaos of human life, we express ourselves. We do so in order to battle against the chaos of the universe. It is an impulse born of our relative size in a universe of a size so great we can rarely imagine its extent. Without this action of expression, we go mad. And, going mad, we produce more chaos. Producing additional chaos, we become liabilities to ourselves, our families, our communities, our societies and our nations.

The need to express, the need for free speech, is a defense mechanism we either developed through millions of years of evolution, or were given as a gift by G-d, or both. To forbid the free exercise of this human right and human need creates chaos, it does not protect against it.

As to the issues of moral speech, I will use another discreet example that, unlike free speech itself, is a result of my culture. That is, I will give as an example of thought on the subject, another “Western” thinker.

And if a man knows good the more he knows of everything else the better since he will be sure to make a good use of his knowledge.


In other words, the free flow of information is necessary to the development of a moral person, and therefore of a good citizen. Far from allowing immorality to secure ground in a society, free speech allows arguments in favor of beneficial behavior to be heard by all and to be examined in terms of the constantly shifting quotidian details of life.

Participation in one’s own arrival at the truth always counts for more than wisdom passively received. A person who has weighed the good and the evil and chosen the good has a sense of personal action in favor of their choice. They have a horse in the race. Without free speech the choice of the good is impossible and can only be approximated by hollow orthopraxy.

Whether the argument is that free speech allows immoral statements to secure a hearing or that free speech creates chaos, the argument against free speech is specious. Free speech is a human right, developed to address the real lived issues of chaos and evil in a dangerous world. Without it, both the individual and the society is powerless to help shape their world for the better.

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