Freedom of speech: What does it really defend?

By Evan Leahy

It could easily be argued that freedom of expression is the most fundamentally important liberty we enjoy in this country.

We are free to interpret events the way we want, free to discuss ideas on social issues and free to express beliefs that challenge dominant religious views. Regardless of political leanings one may have, it is easy to see that artistic, political and religious expression in this country are officially protected in ways that much of the rest of the world does not share.
Apparently, however, there is some confusion on what this freedom really means, mistaking “freedom of speech” to somehow mean “freedom from criticism,” or often “freedom from facts,” which is actually the opposite of what these freedoms are meant to guarantee.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “freedom of speech” as “the right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint.” It is important to note that this definition does not specify what the opinion may be of.
This is to say that freedom of speech applies every bit as much to criticism as it does to original statements.
The very reason this freedom is so essential to our democracy is to ensure that criticism of inaccuracy is uninhibited.
Yet somehow, in classrooms and workplaces and even in reference to respected news sources, the question “what about free speech?” has become a frequent response to anything perceived to be critical of one’s opinion.
Well…yeah. Exactly. People are free to express their own opinion by saying that your belief is faulty. That’s how this works.
If someone is critical of your opinons and ideas and their reasoning is illogical or flawed, you are free to show why that is true and move on. You won.
You don’t, however, get to claim your opinion is somehow sacred. It’s not. Nor is mine.
No one ever has or ever will have an opinion that is inherently free from criticism. For that reason, it is best to make sure the accuracy of a statement justifies the amount of attention it is likely to receive.
The closest thing to an opinion that is free from criticism is one that has been thought out so completely and evaluated so thoroughly that all possible arguments against it fall flat, and opinions that well thought out generally don’t require much defending.
People should feel free – encouraged, even – to express opinions publicly.
Open expression of opinion is essential to having any kind of shared culture. An open marketplace of ideas is what holds a society together and allows it to progress.
That progress, however, first requires discussion. It comes from hearing the various sides of an issue and recognizing that the “truth” on a matter probably exists somewhere between those sides, because all perspectives are incomplete.
There was a time when religion and politics were thought to be private matters and not discussed in public in the interest of not accidentally offending someone.
Given that these matters are now frequently discussed in public, it would reason that our expectations to not hear things that may offend us adjust accordingly.
There are opinions that many find offensive, but it is not consistent with our society’s fundamental values of equality and freedom of expression to limit one’s speech just because it might rub someone the wrong way.
On occasion, of course, speech must be limited. Speech that advocates violence or intimidation toward particular people or groups of people has resulted in unfathomable destruction time and time again.
Advocating violence or subjugation towards any single group of people reflects such a pathological world view that, not only should be unsanctioned in public discourse, but should also become part of a larger talk about how we identify and treat mental illness in the interest of public safety.
No matter how we handle this kind of patently malevolent speech, it is important to distinguish that there are limits and what is being advocated here is not expression that seeks to destroy.
For these same reasons, however, direct interference with free expression cannot be tolerated. It is, in itself, expression that seeks to destroy an opportunity for expression.
This is to say that prohibiting the expression of an idea because a group finds it disagreeable directly and inherently impedes free speech.
Furthermore, the group assaulting or attempting to intimidate those expressing an idea they don’t like is no more justified than that aggression being enacted on members of that group.
Regardless of what feelings may be involved, principles and facts are what matter. Principles are based on facts. Feelings should be justified by facts, rather than feelings dictating which facts are allowed to enter the discussion.
Online video producer Big Think released a video this January featuring actor John Cleese talking about his thoughts on offensive speech.
In it, he says that well-meaning efforts to be more socially conscious and globally aware have brought us “to the point where any kind of criticism of any individual or group could be labeled as cruel.”
This hypersensitivity and the immediately perceived wrongness of anything other than unqualified praise is doing demonstrable damage to our ability to understand the world around us.
People are allowed to disagree with you and they’re allowed to make that disagreement publicly known.
Therefore, it is best to consider possible vulnerabilities of what we say before we say it. No one’s opinion is inherently more valuable than the opinion of another.
On that same note, no one’s feelings are more important than the accuracy of a statement. Hypothetically, if I write an opinion piece about some very strong feelings I had and that piece isn’t very good, I don’t get to use my strong feelings as a defense for what I write, because those two things have nothing to do with one another.
If a compelling argument can’t be made about the cause of these strong feelings, I have no business writing about it and those feelings aren’t based on facts.
We have to think critically about what we say, or accept that others will speak critically of what we say.
All I’m really getting at is we need to be better listeners. We need to listen better to what people are trying to say and actually think about what they’ve said.
Moreover, we owe the people with whom we speak more of our patience and attention than we often give. Then, however, we also owe it to them to take them seriously enough that inconsistencies are pointed out. When someone publicly says something that is obviously inaccurate, and it is allowed to pass without question, we’ve agreed that we don’t expect that person to be accurate and that what they say is not to be taken seriously, which is an unfathomably insulting thing to think about someone.

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