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QLSpeaks: Freedom of Speech

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This is the first edition of QLSpeaks. QLSpeaks is a space for members of the Queen’s Law community to share their views on important issues in 100 words or less.

Individuals in this edition were asked to share their thoughts on the topic of “Freedom of Speech.” The following is a compilation of their views.

 

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in any free and democratic society. It prevents our society from devolving into one of suppression and subjugation. However, it is oft forgotten that while freedom of expression may grant you the right to say something, it does not validate the content of your speech.

It is a sad state when, in a society as diverse and inclusive as ours, we use this right in an offensive and insensitive manner. This right is delivered by democracy and it is our job to ground it in humanity.

– Azeem Manghat, 1L student

 

In his recent Boston Globe article, Steven Pinker asks, “is free speech merely a symbolic talisman, like a national flag or motto?…or is [it] fundamental – a right which, if not absolute, should be abrogated only in carefully circumscribed cases?”

To me, free speech must be a fundamental right. Either we have it or we don’t. It can’t be placed on a spectrum where limits are imposed to appease certain groups while deterring the outspokenness of others. Although such an unlimited right can lead to conflict, it is also the only way to engage in meaningful dialogue and find solutions.

– Brody Appotive, 1L student

 

The current reverence for freedom of speech leaves many questions unanswered. Absolute freedom of speech was necessary at a time in history when people were concerned with oppressive state power but is this rationale still persuasive?

Freedom of speech is a beautiful concept; it has resulted in much advancement, but as society advances so should our understanding of “freedom” and our role as individuals within society. When expression does not advance collective knowledge, what purpose does it serve and how do we continue to justify its protection?

Ultimately, if we consider restrictions of speech dangerous, why not equally excess of speech?

– Nika Farahani, 2L student

 

Freedom of speech comes with a responsibility to strive for empathy and understanding when communicating with others. Although I agree with the idea that no one has the right to not be offended, I also think that communicating prejudicial beliefs—without self-awareness of this prejudice—can be quite harmful. Ultimately, anyone who makes a thoughtful effort to be self-aware and open-minded should be encouraged to share what they think—even if I disagree with them!

– Ian Moore, 2L student

 

Common decency and good taste require consideration but freedom of speech ought not require such self-limitations. Those that demand such consideration fundamentally misunderstand the difference between the conventions of polite societal interaction and the freedom that makes that interaction possible.

– Jonathan Nehmetallah, 2L student

 

Freedom of speech requires the freedom to offend. Although it seems counterintuitive to conceive of rights as having a negative impact, freedom of speech should be viewed indiscriminately. It doesn’t only exist when it appeases social conventions, but also when it provokes and challenges the very ideals we cherish. I think too many people are unable to express themselves for this reason and end up border-lining censorship.

– Derek Kim, 2L student

 

It is important to consider the protection of national, racial, religious, and other minority groups when discussing freedom of speech. These groups are the most likely targets of hate speech, which is often justified by appealing to the idea of absolute freedom of speech. While freedom of speech is of the utmost importance and should be protected, there should be limits to protect minorities from hatred and contempt.

– Billie Leung, 2L student

 

Free expression serves numerous essential functions. Its limits should be found only where it infringes the essential rights of others. Speech causing such physical harm is readily identifiable—vandalism, incitement to violence, and uttering threats, among others.

However, some have claimed a right to be protected against offence. Pope Francis suggested that religion should be shielded from criticism; those who offend such papal sensibilities could “expect a punch.”

This standard undermines the values that free speech protects. Authorities will censor views they find distasteful (as happened to Dieudonné M’bala M’bala), irreparably harming our search for truth, self-realization, and democratic debate.

– Michael Scott, 2L student

 

Freedom of speech is in danger. Somewhere between John Milton’s Areopagitica until now, society managed to warp the concept of free speech into free speech as-long-as-it’s-not-offensive. Perhaps our aversion to offense rests in Canadian society’s rejection of extremism.

Milton relied on the marketplace of ideas as a filter for extremism and the promotion of society’s values. How can we know what is positive if there is no negative?

It’s okay to be offended—being offended inspires action and discourse. If we allow free speech to become centralized so that only mild-mannered views can be heard, the purpose is self-defeating at best.

– Sarah Spitz, 1L student

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