Free Expression – Any Exceptions?

by Salome Zeinklishvili

Imagine watching your favorite movie or reading your favorite book, but censored – it would not be the same. This was once the norm, but nowadays censorship is not as frequent as it once was. Mainly that’s because freedom of expression exists. This right gives people the ability to reinforce all other human rights, allowing society to develop and progress. It guarantees the ability to express an opinion and speak freely; these things are essential for developing a freer future. 

But why is freedom of expression so crucial for our society? Well, the answer is pretty simple. Freedom of expression plays a cardinal role in the doctrines of human liberty. It includes not only a right to freely express yourself or speak freely about any topic you want, but it also includes the receiving, accessing, or imparting of information; this itself means the opportunity for transferring knowledge. 

The free expression of ideas allows for pluralistic dialogues, which really is the major key to liberty. Plurality is achieved by freedom of expression because it not only guarantees the right to express ideas that are popular among society, but it also guarantees the right to express unpopular ideas. Despite this, according to laws in most countries, freedom of expression is not an absolute legal right, which means that it can be restricted under some circumstances. One’s ideas can be expressed in many ways, and some people think that not every way is acceptable in society. Therefore, freedom of expression is often regulated by authorities under the auspices of protecting other kinds of rights or alleviating conflict between individuals. Because of this, states form specific laws that regulate the limiting of freedom of expression. For me, freedom of expression is one of the biggest values for liberty, therefore I believe that its restriction should be minimized. Restraining freedom of expression can give governments the opportunity to control narratives in their favor. This can bring great danger to free society. 

The limitation of freedom of expression and its legitimate purposes are different in each country. In most cases, states restrict this right in order to protect national security and public safety, and to prevent disorder, crime or violence. Governments censor the expression of certain ideas that are considered hazardous for society. Mill argues that in these situations, expressed ideas might not actually be hazardous – to decide if the idea is really dangerous, it is necessary to allow its expression and let society discuss it. The aforementioned aims can be defined very widely and that sometimes is very convenient for authorities. This way authorities can restrict many kinds of actions or ideas, stating that these ideas are against public safety. From my point of view, freedom of expression should only be limited when the idea or action creates immediate and real danger for society members. Otherwise, regulations could go too far, which will harm liberty in general. For example, it can cause harm to a democratic and pluralistic society, as authorities will have more power to restrain human rights and many people will not be able to express themselves.

Debates relating to this topic are highly pertinent at this time, as states work on creating a perfect balance between freedom of expression and other rights. The debate becomes more and more relevant because of the latest innovations. The digital era and technological development contributed to spreading ideas of a freer future and also made gathering or extending enormous amounts of information easier. The aforementioned rules about freedom of expression are fully applicable to the internet too. The internet made expressing ideas simple, because when using the internet many more people are able to see your views. Information is power, and the internet gives individuals any kind of information they want. Therefore, it’s more and more relevant to finally make the perfect balance for freedom of expression and defending other rights. 

Private companies, such as many social networks, have rules regarding expression. For example, not long ago Twitter banned Donald Trump from its network. Twitter locked Trump’s account and explained that his tweets contributed to an elevated risk of violence. This shows that not only states, but also private companies think about limiting freedom of speech or expression. There is no doubt that private companies also have responsibilities to society, but this can also become risky. By regulating political ideas, private companies can help to promote only ideas that are likable for them – this will not benefit the pluralistic or freer society. 

This debate is applicable not only to online space but to real life too. For example, In Georgia, the legislative initiative was registered which would allow the court to forbid the distribution of creative works that violate the rights of individuals, or encourage hatred or violence. The draft law was harshly criticized because it went against the principles of the Georgian constitution. The draft was withdrawn swiftly, but this example shows that freedom of expression is still under threat sometimes. In my opinion, the draft was threatening freedom of expression. Making this draft into law would have endangered creative works. This way not only any kind of expression but also art would be limited. These changes could also cause some of the great artworks in Georgia – that are so popular even schools use them to teach – to be controlled. Therefore, withdrawing the draft was a good decision. 

How far should limiting freedom of expression go? And what are the consequences of restricting certain ideas and expressions? There are no general answers to these questions. The important point to remember is that freedom of expression not only allows for exchanging ideas, but it also gives us an opportunity to freely discuss them in society, and this is one of the most crucial things for liberty.  Therefore, it is crucial we do everything we can to defend our right to free expression. 

This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organisation as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!

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