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The liberty to speak

  • Published at 06:00 pm December 21st, 2019
Freedom of speech
Representational photo: Bigstock

Why freedom of expression matters

International, national, and regional standards recognize that freedom of speech, as one form of freedom of expression, applies to any medium, including the internet.

Judge Dalzell, one of the three federal judges who in June 1996 declared parts of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) in the United States unconstitutional, stated the following:

“Some of the dialogue on the internet surely tests the limits of conventional discourse. Speech on the internet can be unfiltered, unpolished, and unconventional, even emotionally charged, sexually explicit, and vulgar -- in a word, ‘indecent’ in many communities. But we should expect such speech to occur in a medium in which citizens from all walks of life have a voice.”

In this context it would be important to note the observations made by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Declaration of Principles adopted in 2003.

It made specific reference to the importance of the right to freedom of expression for the “information society” by stating: 

“We reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the information society, and as outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” 

Analysts believe that freedom of information is an extension of freedom of speech where the medium of expression is the internet. There is also general consensus that freedom of information may also refer to the right to privacy in the context of the internet and information technology.

The evolving dynamics pertaining to the concept of freedom of information has also partially emerged in response to state-sponsored censorship, monitoring, and surveillance of the internet.

Internet censorship includes the control or suppression of the publishing or accessing of information on the internet. 

In this regard, a widely publicized example of internet censorship is identified as the “Great Firewall of China.” It is claimed that this system blocks content by preventing IP addresses from being routed through, and consists of standard firewall and proxy servers at the internet gateways. The system also selectively engages in DNS poisoning when particular sites are requested.

It would be worthwhile at this point to refer to the first page of John Milton’s 1644 edition of Areopagitica, in which he argued forcefully against the Licensing Order of 1643. The notion that the expression of dissent or subversive views should be tolerated, not censured or punished by law, developed alongside the rise of printing and the press. 

Areopagitica was Milton’s response to the English parliament’s re-introduction of government licensing of printers and publishers. Church authorities had previously ensured that Milton’s essay on the right to divorce was refused a license for publication.

In Areopagitica, published without a license, Milton made an impassioned plea for freedom of expression and toleration of falsehood, stating: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” 

John Stuart Mill later argued that without human freedom there can be no progress in science, law, or politics. Mill argued that truth drives out falsity, therefore the free expression of ideas, true or false, should not be feared.

Mill believed that much of what we once considered true might later turn out to be false. Therefore, views should not be prohibited for their apparent falsity.

Before concluding, one also needs to refer to freedom of thought -- also called freedom of conscience or ideas. This is the freedom of an individual to hold or consider a fact, viewpoint, or thought, independent of others’ viewpoints. It is different from and not to be confused with the concept of freedom of speech or expression.

Freedom of thought is considered as the precursor and progenitor of -- and thus is closely linked to -- other liberties, including freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. Though freedom of thought is axiomatic for many other freedoms, they are in no way required for it to operate and exist.

The aforesaid ideas are also a vital part of international human rights law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) under Article 18 states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.” 

Article 19 of the UDHR guarantees: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference.” 

Muhammad Zamir is a former ambassador and an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]

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