To what extent should freedom of speech be a guaranteed right?

Adapted from: http://gpessays.com/society/to-what-extent-should-freedom-of-speech-be-a-guaranteed-right

Basic rights, basic civil, human and political rights are the cornerstone of every democracy, from America to India, Singapore to South Africa, as set out in their various constitutions and in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For examples, the right to live, the right to vote, the right to a life free from fear and the right to freedom of speech, have all been clearly set out as intrinsic rights which are inalienable and should be duly accorded to every human being. However, the right to freedom of speech has long been the subject of much controversy as to the extent to which this particular right should be guaranteed and to whom.

Freedom of speech, like all other rights, has intrinsic value. It, in particular, allows an individual the liberty to express his thoughts without fear of reproach, regardless of what he says. This has important implications for a country in the social and political arenas for it is only when citizens are able to freely express support for or speak up against certain ideas, be they political policies or even social norms, that progress can be achieved. For example, in a totalitarian or dictatorial state, it is only when people are allowed to speak freely and come up with their own political parties, that there can ever be political reform and progress within a country. This is something that is widely accepted to be true and this can be seen in the global community’s support of Burma ‘s possible release of opposition leader Aung Sung Su Kyi as a move steeped in foresight and with progress in mind.

Similarly, in the social sphere, it is highly beneficial to accord people their right to free speech because it not only breeds a more thinking, more creative societybu it also reduces dissatisfaction and may bring about social reform. If people are not allowed to speak their minds and can only meekly accept whatever comes their way, this is not only detrimental in terms of the type of society being bred, it also gives cause for worry in that citizens may feel deprived of their rights or suppressed, and this could breed latent dissatisfaction in the country. This latent dissatisfaction may result in violence and anger, disrupting stability within a nation. Conversely, if citizens are accorded the right to freedom of speech, this latent dissatisfaction would then have a constructive outlet and backlash would be more peaceful and less antagonistic in nature. This could lead to peaceful social reform, in contrast to the extreme measures that people would otherwise have to undertake in order to successfully put their point across. For example, Martin Luther King, a champion of equal rights in America was allowed to speak up for the rights of the minority, and this was pivotal in bringing about the paradigm shift away from white supremacy to that of equal rights for all. Hence we see that free speech can indeed improve society and enrich people.

However, despite its obvious benefits, we cannot be myopic or overly optimistic by failing to recognize the propensity for such a right to be abused. As such, we see that rights are not absolute and they cease to be ‘rights’ as soon as the exercise of that right infringes on the rights of another. Hence, we cannot assess individual freedom in a vacuum and must put it into a real world context. Free speech, like any other freedom, has the potential for abuse and such abuse results in a clash of interests between societal good and individual liberty. An obvious illustration is extremism. Extremists, who hold views widely divergent from those of mainstream, conventional thinkers, are famous for inciting violence, resulting in social upheaval and hence disrupting law and order. This occurs because certain individuals choose specifically to prey on simmering feelings of resentment, which may exist beneath the surface. This could shake the fabric of society and cause great confusion and possibly violence. This happened in Britain . In 1989, a new political party quickly gained popularity in areas north of London such as Birmingham and Westhampton. Being strongly nationalist, they managed to bring to the surface racist sentiments which ultimately culminated in wide-spread racial violence, the worst witnessed in England in twenty years. Hence we see that the abuse of freedom of speech threatened the security of the country and this is something that cannot be condoned, much less thinly veiled by the argument of it being a ‘basic right’. In such instances, it is in the best interest of society to contain, to some extent, the right of the individual for the good of society.

Thus, it is evident that while the intrinsic value accorded to rights is not entirely imagined, it is sometimes over-hyped and exaggerated and therefore must be taken with a pinch of salt. We cannot then blindly protect the right to free speech without properly taking stock of the wider implications of the actions of the individual. So, while it is a great injustice to deny people of their basic right to freedom of speech, it is justifiable to choose to curtail the rights of some for the good of society, and to avoid the case of possibly bringing about a breakdown of societal cohesion and a disruption of law and order and peace.

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