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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

How Free Should Freedom of Speech Be?

Philosopher's Café

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” [George Orwell]

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” [Salmon Rushdie]

“If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.” [Noam Chomsky]

Most of us would likely agree that the basic civil liberties we enjoy in Canada are essential. Freedom of speech, association and assembly, freedom of conscience (including religion), the freedom to act as one wants limited only for non-arbitrary reasons and in reasonable ways, and the equal benefit and protection of the law. These civil liberties are enumerated in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and thus protected by our Constitution, the highest law of the land. But most of us would also agree that there just are no absolutes in life, except perhaps death and taxes!

We can all imagine circumstances where our rights might conflict with each other and where we might want to draw reasonable distinctions between certain rights, freedoms and interests in ways that preserve justice and respect for others different than ourselves. We constantly ask ourselves whether it is morally right or wrong to say or publish things which offend people, and whether Canadian law should reflect this moral reality by either permitting or making illegal any communication (speech or expression in whatever form) which is offensive to some group or other. Should the right to free expression be constrained? If speech offends a group or an individual is this a harm to be avoided? Or should we just trust that it is better to have more speech rather than less speech?

This leads to a key question: is it sometimes okay to cause offense through speech? When there is no other way to make a point effectively, should not causing offence be tolerated? In the U.S. the idea that speech cannot be banned even if it constitutes advocacy of violence was entrenched in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1969 decision Brandenburg v. Ohio, which overturned the criminal conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader who threatened violence against political officials in a speech.

Of course, the U.S. has been gradually abridging free speech rights in the name of terrorism—prosecuting individuals for ideas expressed on the Internet, twitter and elsewhere. Indeed, free speech is often seen as ‘good for us’ but not applicable to ‘them’—this was perfectly underscored in France, where 48 hours after hosting a massive march under the banner of free speech the French government opened a criminal investigation into a controversial French comedian charged with defending terrorism because he mocked the ‘Je suis Charlie’ slogan.

Should we worry when governments prosecute people for expressing political opinions at odds with the mores of the times? Should governments be able to prohibit and criminalize speech, or act to suppress opinions they dislike?

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