Freedom of expression has been a controversial issue for centuries. It has been oppressed and sometimes lead to death for people such as Plato and Thomas Edison who found out and tried to spread the word that the earth is round. In these modern times, there is more liberty for expressing our thoughts, but there are still complaints and cases where it is still being suppressed based on ground of offense. In this paper, I will try to investigate more on that matter and will try to study the case of the Danish Cartoons.
The term freedom of expression is sometimes used to indicate not only freedom of verbal speech but any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used. In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country and the right is commonly subject to limitations, such as on “hate speech”.
In this paper, I will offer observations about some of the arguments used to justify restrictions on free speech and suggest how they might apply in some cases. To do so, I will be focusing on some of John Stuart Mill’s arguments including the harm principle and the offense principle and their applications in order to justify or not restrictions of free speech.
According to the Freedom Forum Organization, legal systems, and society at large, recognize limits on the freedom of speech, particularly when freedom of speech conflicts with other values or rights. Limitations to freedom of speech may follow the “harm principle” or the “offense principle”, for example in the case of pornography or hate speech. Limitations to freedom of speech may occur through legal sanction or social disapprobation, or both.
John Stuart Mill argued that “…there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered”. Mill argues that the fullest liberty of expression is required to push arguments to their logical limits, rather than the limits of social embarrassment; which is true and this is a good method if we wanted to persuade our opinions to someone. However, Mill also introduced what is known as the harm principle, in placing the following limitation on free expression: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Mills continues to propose that freedom of speech may be restricted in the very limited circumstances in which it is likely to cause harm to others in the form of a violation of their rights. In his example, he states that one may publish the view that corn dealers are starving the poor, but one’s expression of this view in front of an angry mob that will likely provoke them to riot and attack the corn dealers may be prohibited. And obviously, the interests of the corn dealers might be damaged in case that view is printed in a newspaper, but will probably not lead to a violation of their rights as in the case of the speech prior an angry mob. The publication of the view poses no immediate, illegitimate threat to the lives or property of corn dealers. Thus, in this case, freedom of expression is justified.
The overall point here is that a healthy, flourishing democracy relies upon access to a wide range of opinions and sources of information. Both laws and cultural trends are currently working to silence opinions in a manner which will impede the ability of democracies to properly function. Mill’s point about the necessity of freedom of expression for the pursuit of truth is thus intimately connected to the proper functioning of democracy. Although we may find an opinion offensive, silencing that opinion through either laws or cultural forces entails harms so great that the offensive opinions must be allowed to be expressed. Mill is right to object to the silencing of opinions, and his work helps us to see how our modern world is doing harm to the pursuit of truth in ways that we may not be aware.
Another similar case to Mill’s example and one of the most recent controversial issues, took place In September 2005 when the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published 10 editorial cartoons that were perceived by many as direct mockery of the prophet Muhammad and a denigration of Islam. In various cartoons, Muhammad was portrayed as having horns, wearing a turban in the shape of a bomb, and endorsing terrorism. This publication resulted in widespread condemnation from diverse quarters and was met with violent reaction from some. The Danish Islamic Organization sought censure and prosecution of the publication under Danish and international law. This case raises the issue of whether and when local and international law is justified in restricting freedom of expression. Would the government of Denmark have been justified in restricting the publication of the cartoons or exacting punishment for their publication? Should other governments have restricted the subsequent republication of these cartoons in other newspapers, magazines, and on the internet? Should publication of similar material be protected in the future? In the following, I will try to answer these questions.
Before starting and answering these questions, it is essential to keep in mind two things. First of all, freedom of speech is not supreme but is still is an important value. It is one of the very numerous values that may be deficient compared to other values. Thus, any attempt of defending or prohibiting speech involves a balancing of conflicting interests and values. Second, each country has its own laws which vary in the limitations they place on the speech. The United States of America has perhaps the most liberal laws when it comes to protecting the free speech. Many other countries have more restrictive laws, especially regarding the hate speech. However, regardless of liberality of laws regarding free speech, the memory of a person may be an indicator in selecting the type of speech that may be restricted, since the memory may contribute to an assessment of the meaning and importance of the offense and harm that the speech may cause. And quite often, the message that the act of freedom of expression sent does not remain a long time in the memory of third parties, thus making the life span of that idea very short. And, according to Mill’s argument, these cartoons did not cause any immediate or illegitimate threat to public health so the cartoons are justified.
In the case of the Danish cartoons, I do not believe that there was any kind of violation. This is purely an expression of thought. There exist many cases where the freedom of expression offended its recipient. We can name the case of some mockeries of the President of the United States of America or any other important political figure on numerous American TV programs such as the late night shows. Even here in Lebanon, some sketches mock our political leaders or even political parties, yet nothing is being done against it which is a sign of tacit consent. This does not mean freedom of expression should be banned. On the contrary, sometimes these mockeries may provide third parties some information he/she did not know before and could point out to a flaw that the third parties could improve on.
A decent society, is one that honors freedom concretely. However, in many cases, the harm that resulting from the response to the speech might be so significant and uncontainable, that the government would be justified in limiting the speech to protect third parties. Making funny sketches, mocking or drawing caricatures is one thing. Death threats, bomb scares, burning embassies, deadly riots, and boycotts are another. In such exceptional cases, the harm principle may justify restricting speech. There should be an equilibrium between the importance and mitigation of the harm and value of protecting the speech. The well being of the society should be the top priority even if it includes restricting freedom of expression.
In addition and in most cases, a person’s identity can be easily related to his religion or his set of beliefs. So even “bare knowledge” of actions deemed unacceptable from a religious point of view can be considered as a personal deep offense. In such cases, the reasonableness requirement subjects the individual who wants to engage in the offending conduct to a higher standard of proof. He must prove that the value of his behavior makes it not only reasonable but also reasonable enough to outweigh the seriousness of any offense that he might cause. The offended party, however, need prove nothing about the value of what is believed to be disrespected. He need only show that he and others hold the relevant beliefs about value and that when their belief system is confronted with particular kinds of behavior, then experience serious offense.
These days, with technologies emerging in an unprecedented way, social networking has become an important part of our everyday life. Web sites such as Facebook, Twitter or blogs created by an average person are an escape from reality to a place where freedom of expression is highly valued. On Facebook, groups can be created where people with same interests and goals can join. They can open discussion boards and share their ideas, offending or not may it be. However, even on sites like these there are limits for what you can say and post. If someone has offended you, you have the option to report him. But such as in real life, Facebook asks you for a justification in order to go through the reporting process. Another condition is that the user should be reported by many others in order for Facebook to look at that case, because one person cannot be offended unless the speech is directed to him, rather an entire population being offended is another thing.
Furthermore, just because someone calls me out if I treat them badly doesn’t mean I have no right to say whatever I said to offend. It just means that if I choose to use that kind of expression I may have to deal with the social repercussions. And sometimes the good effects of offensive speech can outweigh the harm caused by the offense itself. With that in mind, there’s no reason to withhold a freedom of expression in order to generate more “benefits”. In that context benefit could be a social benefit, economical, political, religious, etc…
Moreover, most of us at some point in our life made fun of, criticized and judged, for example, oversized people, little people, or any other condition that we do not deemed as being “normal”. On the other hand, these people are not harmed but are rather bothered by these comments. This type of expression can be easily defended but we may want to consider that the limits of our freedom of expression ends when we trespass or offend someone else.
We can conclude by confirming that offence does not justify restrictions on freedom of expression but those expressing offensive ideas must consider the possibility that they may push away their potential audience. Remarkably, many people seem to consider such refusal by private citizens to endorse certain ideas with which they disagree to be a form of censorship. Of course it is not, unless they attempt to use the law to suppress those ideas. Also, we could argue that offense does not justify restrictions of freedom, but it justifies the need for manners, respect for others, ethics, empathy, and social consciousness. And by writing this paper, I am expressing my freedom of thoughts hoping that it will affect positively all third parties. So let’s express suitably our basic human right!