Head-To-Head: Should there be limits on freedom of speech?

 
 

To what extent free speech should be limited is a highly contentious issue. Julia O’Reilly and Ross Walsh debate this topic head-to-head.


For: Julia O’Reilly

Julia O’Reilly argues that certain limits on free speech are necessary in any society.

A WORLD with truly unlimited free speech would be chaos. Consider this; should a prospective employer be free to ask the religion and sexuality of an interviewee? Should advertisers be allowed to make fantastical claims about the products they are hawking, regardless of the risks involved in doing so? Should psychiatrists publicise information about their clientele? The answer, of course, is no. Certain limits of free speech exist in most societies for good reason. The concept of free speech is one most stand behind, but very few believe it should be wholly unrestricted. It’s not workable. In any productive society certain lines must be drawn; be that in relation to peace or politeness.

A claim that we need unbridled free speech for debate is most untrue. Supporting limits to free speech in no way means you are anti-debate or pro censorship. A fine example is Milo Yiannopoulos, supposed champion of free speech/internet troll. Watching him on a debate panel is a masterclass in steamrolling and avoidance. He is thoroughly inept at engaging in any sort of real conversation and the reason is simple: hate speech is not workable with debate.

“Supporting limits to free speech in no way means you are anti-debate.”

Hate speech has no rationality. Does it not seem wholly unlikely that any individual who candidly possesses their extreme hateful views will engage in level headed debate on the topic? The wishful sentiment that their emotive claims can be overcome through rational discussion is naïve at best.

The most important point on this topic is that hate speech should not be up for debate. Why should anyone ‘debate’ that women are just as intelligent as men? This is not a discussion. And yet, with the ever prominent alt-right, topics as such are becoming more and more prevalent.

  “How different, in terms of consequences, are the actions we conduct to the words we say?”

Furthermore, it is within the power of the state to put restrictions on the destructive actions of its citizens. We drive at certain speeds, we don’t smoke in restaurants and we do things specifically to avoid harming others. Those that do face punishment. How different, in terms of consequences, are the actions we conduct to the words we say?

Professing hate can incite violence. It is often said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Death threats, bomb threats and relentless online abuse that leads some to suicide are hard to defend in the name of free speech. We are all entitled to do and say as we please so long as we are not invading the freedom of others in doing so. Not so extreme, right? How can you defend unbridled freedom of expression when it is clear that this practice breaches the rights of others?

The internet is a case study in total free speech gone wrong. The incredible platform we have been given, an opportunity for rousing productive debate and discussion, has been abused. Claims that totally free speech is the answer to debate, discussion and change need look no further than the comments under any article. Intended to be an extension of the conversation an article began, instead this section is often a hate filled mess. In response, multiple media outlets have removed their comment sections altogether.

“Death threats, bomb threats and relentless online abuse that leads some to suicide are wildly hard to defend in the name of free speech.”

Like many of the sites, Vice cited the spew of “racist, misogynistic maelstroms where the loudest, most offensive, and stupidest opinions get pushed to the top” as their reason for opting out. Moreover, the Guardian recently reported that, on looking at their own comments section, there is a major correlation between how many blocked comments an article has and the sexuality, gender or religion of the journalist. There is no rationale behind this but hate. Here, lack of regulation hinders rational conversation and instead breeds more hate.

Indeed, in some circumstances free speech must be limited. Intolerance should not be tolerated. Free speech as a human right should not be a guarantee if it undermines the human rights of another.


REBUTTAL (Against) – Ross Walsh

DESPITE what those on the right and alt-right seem to believe, free speech does not equal speech free from consequences. When you utilise your right to freedom of speech you implicitly agree that the results of that speech are your responsibility, whether they are positive or negative, and you should be held accountable for them.

However, if you truly believe something to be true you should have a right to express that opinion, and allow it to be proven or disproven in the arena of public discourse. Will the ignorant always change their minds when challenged? Probably not. But they will never change their minds if left alone to stew in their own bigotry.

In honour of the late Martin McGuinness, we as a society should strive to live by his words of wisdom: “In fact, I would defend to the death their right to express a different point of view”.

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Against: Ross Walsh

Ross Walsh examines why freedom of speech should be unrestricted in universities and across society.

ARTICLE 40.6.1 of Bunreacht na hÉireann acknowledges “the right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions”. Although the Irish Constitution also contains ridiculously outdated clauses on blasphemy that impede on this fundamental right, the basic principle behind it still stands. For any individual to be unable to freely express their beliefs, provided that the expression of those beliefs does not conflict with the laws of the state as in cases of libel or slander, is a crime against that person. Freedom of speech is an integral part of the foundation for democratic society. After all, how can the people hold the power if they can’t even hold a debate?

“After all, freedom of speech does not mean speech free from criticism or rebuttal”

University campuses are fast becoming arenas for a battle between the right to freedom of speech and a perceived right to not be offended. According to the 2017 Free Speech University Rankings, 94% of third-level institutions in the UK restrict freedom of speech on campus, with 63.5% of them having significant restrictions. This is made more worrying by the fact that universities are, at their core, places where ideas should be shared, explored, and above all challenged.

When an individual holds opinions that are deemed offensive by the rest of society, silencing them will never work as well as challenging them. When you make them explain themselves, make them actually work through the intricacies of the conviction they hold, you can expose the weaknesses and holes in that conviction. When a university, or a government, tells them that they cannot express their opinion, the only result is that the individual retreats away from a debate and gravitates towards anonymously posting in newspaper comment sections.

“In truth, both sides want restriction on what opinions can be spoken”

Refusing to place restrictions on free speech does not set the stage for a constant, unrefuted barrage of racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, or prevent us from being able to fight back against such vitriol. After all, freedom of speech does not mean speech free from criticism or rebuttal. When someone uses their right to express an outdated, offensive, or outright bigoted view, we cannot simply say that they should not do so. Rather, as citizens of a democratic country, or as students pursuing the expansion of our knowledge, we have a duty to use our own right to freedom of speech to call out and challenge those we disagree with.

“Our universities, and society at large, could learn a lot from examining Hegelian Dialectics”

There have been attempts to frame the issue of free speech as a left versus right argument. The left are portrayed as radicals, silencing critics who don’t completely conform to acceptable worldviews while the right portray themselves as an oppressed demographic in society, unable to speak their mind on issues that matter to them for fear of aggressive backlash.

In truth, both sides want restriction on what opinions can be spoken. Ask a Trump supporter if they believe climate scientists should be able to publicly discuss their work, or if a Muslim should be able to pray in a public space, and you will soon see that universal freedom of speech is not quite as important to them as they would like you to believe.

Our universities, and society at large, could learn a lot from examining Hegelian Dialectics. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel discussed the relationship between a triad of ideas called the Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. In this school of thought, we begin with a proposition (the Thesis). Then, a conflicting or negating concept is introduced (the Antithesis). From the conflict between these two ideas, a new reconciliatory proposition is born (the Synthesis).

Applying this logic to free speech, even when a controversial debate flares up, both sides will benefit, as even the winning opinion will be changed and reformed for the better through being challenged. When we restrict freedom of speech, we do ourselves a disservice by denying ourselves the opportunity to refine and improve our own viewpoints through challenging, and being challenged, by the opposing worldviews of others.


REBUTTAL (For) – Julia O’Reilly

WHILE it is indeed true that free speech is crucial in any democracy, placing limits are just as important. We need certain restrictions on free speech in order for our society to avoid chaos. Limited free speech is, of course, not an eradication of free speech. While we live in a world with such limits this debate is taking place, opposing opinions are being shared and viewpoints challenged.

In order to fairly curtail free speech the restriction must be justified. Having an opposing opinion or taking offence is not a valid reason. If the opinion of one coaxes others to cause harm then limits are of course necessary.

Those with hateful outlooks on the likes of race, sex or sexuality are wholly unlikely to sway in the face of criticism. Yet, when freely discussed these ideas gain legitimacy and grow power, thus, this causes far more harm than good.

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