The State of Free Speech in the Modern World

Free speech is one of the most important rights that everyone should have. Free speech is what allows us to further improve our society and government through discussion. It is a step in making an individual feel free, that is, one cannot feel free without the freedom to say or even think certain things. But what is free speech, really? It’s certainly a lot more complicated than the black and white of “you can either say whatever you want or you can’t”. For example, free speech also means that people have the freedom to think or say whatever they want about what another says using their own free speech. Thus, free speech does not protect you from the social repercussions of what you say. Free speech also does not necessarily protect the incitement of violence, as at that point it goes beyond normal speech and steps into the domain of threats. Definitions and boundary lines such as these, however, are where people disagree on what free speech is. This disagreement can clearly be shown in recent news.

The recent student protests and riots that have taken place across various college campuses are one example. These protests have largely been in response to the colleges in question inviting various speakers who are, let’s say, quite a big step away from the typical left-leaning opinions of the general college population. Those opposing the speakers claim that these speakers spread “hate speech”, and thus should not be allowed to speak at the college campuses as it gives them a platform to speak. The protesters have received a lot of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, including former president Obama himself, saying that “I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view.”. Whether these speakers are actually hateful and spreading hate speech is an entirely different topic altogether, but it should go without saying that putting such a title on them goes on a case-by-case basis and is very subjective. The point, however, is that this is very clearly people trying to silence others based on their opinions. Whether or not those people are spreading hate speech is irrelevant, they should be allowed to speak nonetheless. If we find someone’s opinion to be distasteful, disagreeable, immoral, hateful, etc.,rather than trying to silence them, we should discuss their opinion with them. In this case, I would personally suggest attending their gathering to not only gain a new perspective on what they think and why they think that way, that is, to understand opposing points of view, but also to argue against them, ask them questions during the questioning period. Is that not what such gatherings are, at least in part, for? Jumping to a protest (though they have every right to do so) or even, in some cases, a riot simply because people do not agree with someone and dislike them being allowed to even speak publicly at all is simply unreasonable. To end on a quote from journalist Andrew Rosenthal, “The right of free speech cannot be parceled out based on whether we want to hear what the speaker has to say or whether we agree with those views. It means, quite often, tolerating the expression of views that we find distasteful, perhaps even repugnant.”. Also in recent free speech news, in a level up within the free speech silencing hierarchy, the German government has recently come under a whole lot of fire for its recent actions.

According to the New York Times, German authorities raided the homes of 36 people accused of putting “hateful postings” on social media. This has faced criticism from many sides, as how can a country truly be free if its citizens must constantly be wary of every word they say for fear of having their very home be raided and, possibly, arrest and legal persecution? As journalist Glenn Greenwald puts it, “Free speech rights means that government officials are barred from creating lists of approved and disapproved political ideas and then using the power of the state to enforce those preferences.”. This is exactly what is happening here. Thus, the only scenario in which this could be deemed just is if these people were actually inciting real and active violence, and thus being a threat to others and public safety as a whole. We don’t know the exact details of what these people posted, only that the wide majority of those accused were posting right-wing content, while an additional 2 were posting left-wing content and 1 final individual being accused of posting “threats or harassment based on someone’s sexual orientation”. The fact that the wide majority of those raided were right-wing has raised some eyebrows, implied some things, though it’s best not to leap to any conclusions. The fact is, however, that German authorities have used their power to raid the homes of people for what they have said online. This is, objectively, an infringement on free speech.

According to Forbes, German legislation recently passed a law that would allow them to fine social media companies up to $57 million simply for not removing “hate speech” in a timely manner. Companies must also submit a semi-annual report on their actions. Individuals themselves who have been appointed to oversee the whole procedure for each company may also be fined up to $5.8 million if things aren’t satisfactory. Originally, companies also had only a measly 24 hour period to remove content. After facing backlash, German legislation made a the law a little more lax, giving a week-long period instead rather than the previous 24 hours, while also excluding messenger and email providers, as well as stating that punishment will only be dealt out if the company in question has been actively refusing to cooperate, rather than dealing punishment as soon as one little piece of “hate speech” seeps through. This law has, as one might expect, seen a lot of criticism by free speech advocates and human rights experts, who argue that the law is very restrictive, places a large burden on social media companies, and is anti-free speech. This law, which forces the censorship of hate speech (a term with subjective definitions), is just one more in a line of similar laws implemented by German legislation, including jail time for Holocaust denial and hate speech against minorities. As Professor Wolfgang Shulz, a major legal expert in Europe, puts it, “There are many effective ways of addressing fake news or hateful speech that should be taken into account to minimize potential negative effects on freedom of speech”. Everyone deserves to speak their mind without legal repercussions, we can’t make exceptions, even if people have truly deplorable things to say. Making exceptions and censoring people is against the very principle of free speech, and freedom as a whole.

But none of this can compare to the kind of freedom of speech infringements and human rights violations as a whole that can be seen in some other countries. Examples include North Korea’s unparalleled human rights violations, China’s censorship (including, in recent news, censoring Winnie the Pooh), and Iran. Iran, for example, I could go on and on about in its many, many actions against free speech. In short, however, I will quote Iranian journalist and former government official Isa Saharkhiz, who compared being a journalist in Iran to “walking on a minefield”. Amidst jail time, whippings, and even death sentences for petty things such as allegedly insulting religious figures or leaders and the mass censorship of books and other media for not essentially working as propaganda machines, among a vast number of other things, Iran is an example of what we should aim to avoid in terms of free speech and human rights.

Free speech is a basic human right, as it should be. While some may be tempted to silence others because they perceive their opinions as hateful and harmful, we must remember that everyone deserves to be able to speak their mind, and instead of trying to silence others we should instead listen to them, try to understand their views and argue against them. In short, communicate. I’ll end with a quote from British 1800s politician Charles Bradlaugh: “Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech”.

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