Freedom of speech is often regarded as an integral concept in modern liberal democracies, where it is understood to outlaw censorship. Free speech is also supported by international human rights proclamations, notably under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, although implementation remains lacking in many countries. This article is about the general concept. For information about freedom of speech in different countries see Freedom of Speech (International).
The right to freedom of expression is not considered unlimited; governments may still prohibit certain damaging types of expressions. Under international law, restrictions on free speech are required to comport with a strict three part test: they must be provided by law; pursue an aim recognized as legitimate; and they must be necessary (i.e., proportionate) for the accomplishment of that aim. Amongst the aims considered legitimate are protection of the rights and reputations of others (prevention of defamation), and the protection of national security and public order, health and morals. Opinions vary widely among people different nations and cultures as to when restriction of free speech meets these criteria.
In the US:
Bill of Rights
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion , or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
An example of a controversial issue:
A free country can only stay free if citizens have the right to voice their opinions. The flag amendment is the first step in curtailing that right. A great many veterans understand this, and oppose the flag amendment. Many have said that they fought not for the flag, but for the Constitution and the freedoms it guarantees. Many also have pointed out that they fought--in World War II, in the Cold War, in the fight against terrorism--to defeat enemies who would not think twice about making it a crime to "desecrate" national symbols like the flag. These totalitarian regimes understood well that the authority to put people in jail for an act like flag burning helps silence dissent and consolidate power.
Texas v. Johnson. The Supreme Court rules that burning the American flag is a constitutionally protected form of free speech.
A constitutional amendment that would have banned flag desecration failed to win the necessary two-thirds vote in the Senate, with only 51 Senators voting in favor of the amendment and 48 voting in opposition.
"In a 5-to-4 decision, the Court held that Johnson's burning of a flag was protected expression under the First Amendment. The Court found that Johnson's actions fell into the category of expressive conduct and had a distinctively political nature. The fact that an audience takes offense to certain ideas or expression, the Court found, does not justify prohibitions of speech. The Court also held that state officials did not have the authority to designate symbols to be used to communicate only limited sets of messages, noting that "[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."
Charter of Rights and Freedoms:
2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
a) freedom of conscience and religion;
b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
d) freedom of association.
In a recent case, a homosexual, Mark Schnell, decided that a website that was critical of homosexuals and pedophiles created a "climate of homophobia" on the Internet, which might possibly expose homosexuals, as a group, to "hatred or contempt." In Canada, according to the Human Rights Act, this is enough "evidence" to bring a lawsuit against a Canadian citizen. As bizarre as it may seem, it is not necessary to show that anyone is actually harmed by a "climate" of homophobia or racism or anti-Semitism; one need only express hurt or discomfort at the existence of derisive, unsympathetic or satirical portrayals of particular groups.
The Criminal Code of Canada: Hate Propaganda:
As of 2003-SEP-16, the "Hate Propaganda" section of the Criminal Code of Canada (Section 318 & 319) prohibited the expression of hatred against -- or the advocacy of genocide of -- four "identifiable groups:" people distinguished by their "color, race, religion or ethnic origin." 1 Curiously enough, sex, disability, and other criteria are not included. Apparently one can deliver a speech that "willfully promotes hatred" -- even one which "advocates or promotes genocide" -- against women or the disabled and enjoy immunity of prosecution under the law. Hatred against persons on the basis of their sexual orientation was not protected either. An individual could promote hatred or even advocate genocide against heterosexuals, bisexuals, or homosexuals with impunity, as long as the speech was directed at persons with a specific sexual orientation. Bill C-250 changed this when it was signed into law.
So what are your thoughts about freedom of speech? Does the government have the right to curtail freedom of speech because members of society find it "hateful" or "offensive"?