You could start thinking
about freedom of speech by checking out the official Free Speech Week website. There you can find out about an essay contest
(which ends today!), watch some videos, and find out what various
organizations have done to celebrate freedom of speech.
The creators of the day
encourage us all—kids and teens and adults—to write in private
journals or public blogs, to comment on Facebook or on others' blog
posts or websites, to write articles or letters for school or city
newspapers—in order to to exercise our free speech rights and
express our ideas.
I just read an
interesting blog post from PZ Myers. He wrote that “free speech is
not freedom from responsibility,” and he explored some of the
nuances of the free speech discussion. Basically, he points out that
this freedom, like any other freedom, is not absolute.
I have always known that
free speech has some limits. For example, it has been ruled that free
speech doesn't include speech that causes others clear and present
danger, such as screaming “Fire!” in a movie theater when there
is no fire. You probably know that libel and slander and defamation
laws also limit free speech: you cannot write or broadcast a false
claim that gives someone else a negative image. There is even some
limitation of public disclosure of private facts—even if the facts
are true, courts have ruled, that is no defense against invasion of
So there are a lot of
reasonable limitations on freedom of speech.
PZ Myers points out that
some people complain that someone's freedom of speech has been
violated if they are not allowed to comment on a certain website,
blog with a certain blog group, or talk on a certain broadcast show.
But, he says, that is clearly wrong. The person can still speak
freely elsewhere. There is no reason that a website moderator, say,
or network executive HAS TO provide a soapbox and megaphone for every
single person in the world to say whatever he or she wants, whenever
she or he wants.
People who disagree with
you and me—even people who have awful views and ideas—have the
right to speak and write about their ideas. But they don't have the
automatic right to speak at, say, the science conference I went to a
few months ago, or the church down the road, or a soldier's funeral.
I have a right—–and even a responsibility!—to eliminate a
comment on my Facebook page or on this blog if I consider it highly
inappropriate or hate speech.
Myers points out that
when we discuss freedom of speech, we should acknowledge the
problem of privilege. As always in a democracy, where the rights of
the minority must be safeguarded against the whims of the majority,
we must consider the fact that not everyone has equal access to
public speech. It seems as if the internet offers a democratic
solution to the problem of the wealthy and powerful owning the
printing presses and broadcast stations. However, even on the
internet, we have to watch out that the loudest and most aggressive
voices don't drown out everyone else. One possible problem with
communication on the internet is its opportunities for anonymity; I
have seen, over the years, that people writing anonymous posts or
comments often feel free to speak horribly hateful words that they
would never, ever say to someone in the flesh, in real life.
Basically, freedom of
speech is important, and worth defending. But this freedom must be
discussed with nuance rather than with absolutes. It is a freedom
that must be balanced against other freedoms. It is a freedom that
carries responsibilities to ourselves and others.