Source: Unsplash by Gayatri Malhotra

Free speech is vital for a healthy society. I buy into this maxim wholeheartedly. One-to-one relationships, communities, businesses – basically any gathering of two or more people can become uncomfortable or even sinister whenever people notice their speech is being controlled. This has been evident throughout history; from the mass censorship that entire nations have exerted on their populations – to abusive domestic relationships, where there is the fear that a misspoken word may lead to violence, intimidation, or excessive ridicule, resulting in significant damage. This can never be good. Therefore I am an advocate for free speech. However, that also cannot be the whole story!

It has been said often, ‘This generation loves to talk about their rights but not their responsibilities.’ This can easily be aimed at most of us today – at least to some degree. Considering that many people, like myself, see free speech as a valuable right, we must then ask the question: are there responsibilities that we are neglecting while we bang our ‘inalienable rights’ drum?

With our right to healthcare, we have an implicit responsibility to care of ourselves to the best of our abilities. With our right to a fair trial, we have the implicit responsibility to give honest testimony. Most ‘rights’ have caveats that are either explicit or implicit to the right itself.

Personally, I have thought a lot about this. I have heard many debates on the subject and could never really take one side one hundred percent, despite highly valuing free speech. Besides that, it was also a personal challenge to realise that I was ready to champion a right without being clear about my personal and corporate responsibility attached to that right.

So what is my responsibility as someone born in a ‘free’ society? What are the caveats that tether my seemingly untouchable right down to the reality of limitations?

I often think of value and respect. This is maybe cliche, maybe revolutionary, or perhaps something bland in between – it’s hard to tell nowadays! But it is my belief that our responsibility (in a free speech society) is to value every person and treat them with respect. We can say what we want, but our internal conscience and external community should be positioned to celebrate and promote value and respect. In other words, self-censoring – but out of love.

But is that enough? What if we just keep getting nastier and nastier in our speech towards each other and feel no pang of conscience as we claim it’s my ‘human right’ or ‘just a joke?’ I don’t think I have definitive answers in this writing, it may be a mistake to come here looking for any! I do want this topic to be discussed more thoroughly, though, and thought about more deeply. I come from the camp that would have always said that we are duty bound to avoid the extremes of Soviet Russia or North Korea, but in experience, we almost always overcorrect when avoiding extremes; so neither do I want a society where we delight in saying any stupid, empty or hateful thing we want and think it’s okay, or even laudable, under the guise of ‘exercising our rights’.

A confession of mine is that I did start writing this with the idea of being propositional. I had some ideas on how we could change our view of free speech. However, they became limp and anaemic as I continued. That happens every time I think about this subject. How do we have free speech – while maintaining an understanding of personal responsibility – without enforcing aspects of that responsibility by law (which inevitably destroys free speech)?

Do we see the value of free speech? Do we see its purpose or use? Maybe we will have to lose some more of it to start seeing its importance. Should people be prosecuted for what they say? Or to put it the other way, should people never be prosecuted for what they say? How will we continue to categorise what is legal and illegal speech? And who will/should make these categories? If I enjoy free speech, how will I use it well? Dumb jokes, interesting discussion or serious discussion? Is a mix of all three (and more) okay?! What are the signs that free speech is being eroded? If we value it, then how can we protect it?

As with many topics today, we have to be asking far more questions and having much more dialogue. To end with, at least, some definitive personal opinion: I believe that if we think that it is an easy decision to prosecute someone for their speech, then we are on the road to tyranny. Likewise, if we believe the extent of our free speech is for crude jokes then we don’t understand its incredible purpose and privilege. The very platform on which you read this post would not be possible without free speech and the desire to do something with it.

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