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Freedom of Expression and Free Speech

March 23, 2021

Freedom of expression is considered to be one of the classic human rights. Ever since “the Enlightenment”, freedom of expression has been indispensable to the development of free societies. Because of the enormous need for know-how in modern times, it has virtually become a condition of life itself. Since the diffusion of information without it is dubious, it has professional relevance for linguists worldwide. Freedom of expression includes the right to hold opinions and to impart or receive information and ideas without interference from authorities. In comparing freedom of speech to freedom of expression, it is important to make clear that freedom of expression is a compromise between various considerations, such as public order and the sanctity of private life. Nonetheless, these considerations differ from censorship and are believed to be best path for both individuals and the community.

Freedom of Speech Is a Qualified Right

The most basic component of freedom of expression is a person’s right to freedom of speech, which can be exercised verbally as words, or symbolically as actions. Often considered to be an inalienable right, freedom of speech allows individuals to express themselves and encompasses their personal decision as what to say as well as what not to say. Although it is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of speech is still a qualified right in that it may be restricted in certain circumstances, such as:

  • Obscenity - speech determined obscene by the Miller Test.
  • Fighting Words – personal insults inciting imminent lawless actions.
  • True Threats - speech integral to illegal conduct like fraud.
  • Child Pornography – photos, print media, and videos related to child pornography.
  • Defamation – false speech containing harmful untruths (slander or libel).
  • Commercial Advertising – speech (not misleading) to sell products or services.
  • Copyrighted - speech protected by an original authorship.

It is generally an accepted practice that the government establishes a safe environment that enables individuals to speak freely, and to ensure unpopular views are not inhibited from being expressed. The government may impose reasonable speech restrictions but cannot favor or disfavor one idea over another. Often misunderstood, the First Amendment right that guarantees freedom of the press is not much different than freedom of speech but focuses on disseminated information via publications or notices.

United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Although the degree to which the right is upheld can vary greatly from one country to another, the right to Freedom of Speech is preserved in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Translated into more than 500 languages, the U.N. document was drafted by representatives from all global regions and has been at the center of more than seventy human rights treaties. To promote worldwide social progress, member states have pledged to work with the United Nations in establishing the equal and inalienable human rights to ensure freedom from fear and oppression. It is important to understand that even in America freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press are rights against the government and not rights against other individuals or the community.

Offensive Speech Is Protected by the First Amendment

A misconception that is often brought to question in the United States involves whether or not the Constitution extends to anyone the Right to Not Be Offended, which it does not. Although the government can intervene and censor speech in certain circumstances like prohibiting a public-school teacher from promoting religious theory, most statements (or actions) that someone might consider offensive are likely protected under the provisions of the First Amendment. For example, the United States Supreme Court has upheld flag burning, vulgar speech, violent video games, speech for purposes of entertainment, and hate speech as protected forms of speech. Despite the common misconception among the general population, the First Amendment only prohibits the government from limiting free speech and its provisions do not directly apply to the private sector.

Relationship of Free Speech to Social Evolution

Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are believed to be necessary in a democracy because they allow for diversity in political points of view. Nonetheless, the First Amendment does empower the government to make reasonable restrictions as long as it does not favor, or disfavor, a given idea over others. When the courts have to rule on viewpoint-based speech restrictions, it must pass the strictest levels of scrutiny. In the case of Hate Speech, the Supreme Court has invalidated local ordinances that prohibit freedom of speech and freedom of expression by restricting the display or voicing of resentment against others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender. The collective view of the Court’s justices is that government cannot prohibit these actions based on the ideas expressed without suppressing positive speech as well. As a historical issue, it is easy to see how freedom of expression and freedom of speech may have both benefited and restricted the evolution of inalienable human rights across the global landscape.

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