What limits, if any, should we place on the right to freedom?

Rahaana – Year 12 Student

Editor’s note: This excellent essay was entered into the Law category of the New College of the Humanities Essay Competition, 2022. The NCH competition is one of the major external essay competitions open to Year 12 students each year. As the NCH note, ” What limits, if any, should we place on the right to freedom of expression? Our selection of essay titles engages across a broad range of humanities and social sciences topics and we look forward to receiving entries from talented and intellectually curious students who show passion and academic potential in the humanities and social sciences. We welcome entries from students located anywhere in the world.” CPD

Freedom of expression is “a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction”. To completely limit or mute one’s opinions be that political or social is unethical and impractical. Similarly, to fail to enforce any limitations, for example through laws, would also lead to unjust ramifications upon society.  However, there are limitations that are already set in place through laws and legislations, which work accordingly in our society. It is essential to ensure the use of freedom of expression is used appropriately in order to provide a plethora of opinions and ideas.

To begin, in regards to addressing the extent in which freedom of expression should be limited, I am going to consider the consequences of completely removing it. Immediately, it is clear that, what distinguishes human beings from other animals is our ability to communicate. It is an integral part of free will. Therefore, eliminating freedom of expression encourages society to become regressive and restrictive. This is because everyone would be confined to similar morals – a robotic environment. To take away all freedom of expression would require removal of freedom which is impossible. Those who are oppressed, or want to stand up to a limited society will become alienated and more passionate to object to the violation of human rights. For example, in 1964, Malcolm X delivered his infamous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech stressing the need for African-Americans to pursue Black Nationalism and argued against non-violent protests. Whilst this political activist achieved much for civil rights, he turned to violent protests in order to gain freedom exclaiming that black people should protect themselves ‘by any means necessary’. This example shows that restricting rights is suffocating, unethical and problematic. This points out the obvious conclusion that oppression of any freedom whether it be expression or association will create chaos. It gives rise to underground movements and secret societies leading the charge and thereby removing our fundamental human rights.

On the other hand, complete freedom of expression in an organised society is also impossible. Society would become anarchic and unsafe if there was complete freedom. There has to be a recognised mechanism that sets out the most acceptable principles of freedom of expression that is followed by the most members of the society. This common recognition in an organised society comes from laws and legislations as the topics can be debated and in the end, the majority must win. Most common moral principles are innate. We all know that to steal, to murder, to oppress is wrong. Equality and fairness must be maintained. There is a universal duty to treat one another with respect and dignity. Again, the law plays a vital part in maintaining these common values. The law must, like life, remain dynamic. It must be adaptable.  Law is the essential glue that keeps freedom alive and allows social prosperity.

As both of these extremities are impractical, I am going to use my freedom of expression to argue within the parameters. There are already premeditated and unspoken restrictions placed on our right to freedom of expression – whether this be from social expectations or the law. From here, one can evaluate why the limitations in place work in our society. So – how do we allow freedom of expression whilst avoiding too much to spoil a properly functioning society?

We do nothing, because the rights that are in place work. Society naturally goes through periods of repression, silence and then aggression and a voice. We regulate ourselves. A prime example, referring once more to the US, is George Floyd. His death was no different from many other black men and women in similar situations. But, this time, the culmination of years and years of the freedom of expression of the black community being ignored and silenced suddenly became more important because it came at a time when Trump supporters had used their freedom of expression to express abhorrent views in public that previously had only been muttered behind closed doors. The Trumpist ‘freedom of expression’ allowed the Black population to propel their social discourse in a way that impacted the international community.

We regulate one another.

 Regarding social expectations, John Stuart Mill puts forward an interesting point through his harm principle stating: “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” This proposes that freedom of speech, in particular, may be restricted in order to prevent harm and violations of human rights. His example of a ‘corn dealer’ expresses the acceptance of freedom of expression within society for intellectual and social progress. He states that it is acceptable to claim and publish the view that corn dealers starve the poor. However, to express this view in front of an angry mob whom are likely to harm corn dealers may be prohibited. Whilst the interests of the corn dealers could be damaged in the case that the newspaper is released, it will not directly lead to a violation of their rights compared to the case of the angry mob. The publication of the expression carries no immediate threat and thus, freedom of expression is justified in this case.

The salient point here is that a flourishing justice system, that enacts true fairness, relies upon varied access to opinions. Moreover, there are similar, more contemporary examples like Mill’s. On the 30th September 2005, a Danish newspaper (Jyllands-Posten) published twelve editorial cartoons, which depicted the prophet Muhammed in a disrespectful and offensive way. It was announced by the newspaper that this was done in attempt to contribute to a debate regarding self-censorship and criticism of Islam. Some third party members, following Mill’s principle, would argue that this was not intended to produce direct harm, as it was meaningful within that current climate. However, Islam has a strong tradition of aniconism and it is considered impious to visually depict the prophet Muhammed in a crass manner. Although this use of expression did not cause physical or immediate harm, it did lead to international protests in late January 2006. Furthermore, some protests escalated into violence and more than 250 reported deaths, attacks on churches and a boycott of Denmark. Representatives of the Muslim organisations complained in early October 2005, claiming Jyllands-Posten had violated section 14(*1)and section 266(*2)of the Danish Criminal Code. The government stated, “the Danish legislation prohibits acts of expressions of blasphemous or discriminatory nature. The offended party may bring such acts or expressions to court, and it is for the courts to decide in individual cases”. Nevertheless, the newspaper firm was acquitted, as there was insufficient evidence that the cartoons intended to be harmful towards Muslims.

From this, one may question whether this use of political freedom of expression was used ethically. Either way, there is a common recognition of conflict. As this became an international interest, individuals may have become intrigued to research Islam and find out why it was so disturbing. Perhaps, this encourages awareness and cultural understanding. Mill would suggest that allowing people to present controversial opinions is productive for two reasons. First, individuals are more likely to abandon and reconsider erroneous beliefs if they are engaged in an open exchange of discussion. Second, by allowing people to re-examine their beliefs, there is room for re-evaluation and their beliefs are stopped from declining into mere dogma. As Mill believed, the truth can be understood by refuting an error in an opinion. Finally, as most opinions are neither utterly true nor false, free expression allows competing views to find the common truth from both sides.

As a conclusion: I believe that our humanity allows us to stand up and realise when to use our freedom of expression. There are laws in place that appropriately restrict unjust acts of expression. Examples where freedom of expression has been used with ill are still useful as they leave room for discussion, reform and re-evaluation. It is necessary for a functioning society to allow everyone to be armed with freedom of expression. The Law adapts to society. Therefore, as society progresses, no changes need to be made.  


*2 “Section 14(aka the blasphemy law), prohibits disturbing public order by publicly ridiculing or insulting the dogmas of worship of any lawfully existing religious community in Denmark. Only one case, a 1938 case involving an anti-Semitic group, has ever resulted in a sentence”.

* “Section 266 criminalises insult, threat or degradation of natural persons, by publicly and with malice attacking their race, colour of skin, national or ethnic roots, faith or sexual orientation”.





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