• Sweden's news in English
 
app_header_v3
Opinion
'Sweden needs more free speech, not less'
A demonstration for freedom of expression in Stockholm in January 2015. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

'Sweden needs more free speech, not less'

The Local · 5 Jan 2016, 10:09

Published: 05 Jan 2016 10:09 GMT+01:00

There are many threats to free speech and open debate today: armed conflicts, far-reaching anti-terror legislation and digital surveillance to name just a few. But not all threats are as obvious. In fact, free speech is constantly compromised – even in western countries where it used to be a strongly defended principle.

The shots fired at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris almost exactly a year ago had hardly rung out before commentators and pundits scrambled to declare that freedom of expression had to be qualified. Naturally, they said, people should be allowed to say whatever they wanted, but then the next word out of these pundits’ mouths was "but…" Typically, a long list of restrictions followed, with freedom of expression described as problematic for this or that group.

Those who demand restrictions to freedom of speech in Sweden generally have good intentions, but good intentions are not enough. It is precisely when principles are put to the test that they need to be defended – with no ifs and no buts. Not least because tampering with fundamental principles risks backfiring.

Extending legislation in order to silence your opponents, no matter how much you dislike them, is not only morally wrong – it’s often counter-productive. This has been shown time and time again. Back in the 1930s, members of the British left used their influence to ban fascists from demonstrating only to discover, a few years later, that the same laws were used against them so that they, too, were prevented from practising their democratic rights.

Such a careless attitude to free speech is very dangerous because if we are not willing to defend fundamental democratic rights for those we do not agree with, then we should not be surprised if those rights are taken from us, too. The restrictions we are willing to enforce today – even if imposed with good intentions, for instance in order to avoid offending someone – will come back to haunt us tomorrow. It is not reasonable that one person’s hurt feelings should impact another person’s right to speak their mind.

Instead, we need to be reminded of why freedom of speech is worth defending; we need to be reminded of why this principle is so important that we should demand more of it rather than less.

THE LOCAL FRANCE: Charlie Hebdo one year after the attacks

Ironically, freedom of speech is rarely a tool that serve those in power. Members of the establishment always have the most to lose when their position is questioned. Free speech is a right that is not needed for people who say the 'correct' or 'accepted' things. It's a right for those who say the 'wrong' things. All societies, including the most repressive ones, enjoy a certain level of 'freedom of speech' but only for what is generally accepted and uncontroversial.

The true measure of free speech is how the majority treats those who fall outside the mainstream consensus: the provocateurs, the politically extreme, the satirists, the outsiders, the difficult and the stubborn. That is as true in China, Iran and Eritrea as it is in Sweden.

The defence of free speech begins within ourselves. It's not enough to reserve the right to say whatever you want to say. There’s also a responsibility to respect the right of others to do the same. Allowing somebody to enjoy their freedom of speech does not mean that you have to take everything they say seriously, however, or that you have to blindly accept every stupidity that is uttered. On the contrary, free speech includes a certain obligation to critically examine, counter and debate, and the proper response to vile opinions is more opinions – not fewer.

The life-blood of any democracy is the battle of ideas. That's where we get to test our own convictions and arguments. That’s our opportunity to influence others – and, who knows, perhaps we can learn something along the way? Free speech demands that we do not try to silence people, not with automatic weapons and not with laws – but neither with social exclusion, angry Twitter mobs or dishonest labelling.

It is incredibly dangerous to try to institutionalize truth and legislate in the name of good taste. By turning free speech into a privilege – which has to be earned! – instead of a right – which we all have! – we're undermining the entire democratic model.


Jonathan Lundqvist, Reporters Without Borders. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT

Story continues below…

We have to create an ideal where we, instead of looking for opportunities to feel offended and demand that someone be silenced, respect other people's right to speak. Sometimes that means having our ideas, beliefs and convictions contested or even mocked, but living in a democratic society means that we also have to be prepared to simply shake things off and move on. Upholding the fundamental principle of free speech trumps avoiding hurt feelings.

Values and world views that many of us take for granted today began as major provocations that cut straight through perceptions about what was seen as acceptable. Whether it was claiming that Earth is not the centre of the universe, demanding women's emancipation, fighting for the abolition of slavery or defending gay rights – none of those struggles would have been possible without the ability to express opinions.

We must feel safe in the notion that freedom of speech is the best guarantee we have to ensure that good ideas win over bad ones – and we need to rest assured that no society has collapsed because of too much free speech.

Jonathan Lundqvist is the chairman of the Swedish branch of Reporters Without Borders (Reportrar utan gränser). This is a translation of an article originally published by Göteborgs-posten.

For more news from Sweden, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

Today's headlines
Police shoot knife man in central Stockholm
Police technicians spent the rest of Saturday night combing the square for clues. Photo: TT

A knife-wielding man was shot by police officers in Stockholm’s Sergel Square on Saturday night after he attacked officers.

 Ibrahimovic 'will not go to Manchester United' - agent
Ibrahimovic is pondering his next move. Photo: TT

According to Mino Raiola, the agent of Swedish superstar footballer, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his client will not be heading to Old Trafford to link up with Jose Mourinho, Manchester United's new manager.

More flight delays hit Swedish airport
For some flights, the problems have led to up to two hours of delays. Photo: TT

Travellers at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport were beset again with delays on Saturday afternoon after technical problems with flightplan management software.

Video
The top reactions to Swedish high heels handyman video
Andersson was in agony after a day of laying floors in high heels. Photo: Emil Andersson

What did The Local's readers think about this viral clip challenging sexist beauty ideals?

Transport authorities call for probe into tech glitch
SAS aircraft grounded at Arlanda airport last week. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

But officials say it was not sabotage that caused last week's network failure, which knocked out large parts of Swedish air traffic.

Why northern Swedes get the hots for sex toys
File photo of handcuffs. Photo: Gunnar Lundmark/SvD/TT

Where in Sweden do people buy the most sex toys? Kiruna in the far north, apparently.

Royal baptism day for Sweden's Prince Oscar
Prince Oscar with Archbishop Antje Jackelén. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

UPDATED: Royalty, dignitaries and other esteemed figures took to Stockholm's Royal Chapel for the ceremony.

Giant replica of Swedish 18th century ship up for sale
The Götheborg setting sail from Stockholm in 2008. Photo: Claudio Bresciani / TT

A replica of a doomed Swedish merchant vessel that sank in 1745 within sight of its home port of Gothenburg has been put up for sale.

Border checks
First migrants make it from Denmark to Sweden on foot
The Öresund bridge between Sweden and Denmark. Photo: Erland Vinberg/TT

Dozens of attempts have been made, but this is the first successful crossing since Sweden introduced ID and border checks.

Brexit
Poll: Swedes are worried about Brexit consequences
The possibility of Brexit has Swedes worried about the EU's future. Photo: Lars Pehrson/SvD/TT

Swedes are worried about what may happen both at home and abroad if Britain votes to leave the EU in June.

Sponsored Article
How to find student housing in Malmö: 5 tips
Gallery
The best, cutest and funniest snaps from Prince Oscar's christening
Sponsored Article
Can you afford to live in Stockholm? (Hint: yes)
Travel
Is this town the best place in Sweden?
Gallery
People-watching: May 25th
Blog updates

27 May

Editor’s blog, May 27th (The Local Sweden) »

"Hej readers, Would you spend a day doing manual labour in high heels? That’s what Swedish…" READ »

 

17 May

What about “att”? (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! It often seems like the small words are the ones that cause the most confusion.…" READ »

 
 
 
Sponsored Article
'Sweden gives artists the space to follow their dreams'
Society
WATCH: Why Swedish handyman wore pink high heels for feminism
Sponsored Article
Stockholm makes it easier for refugees to meet startups
Sport
LIST: Top-ten ridiculous things Zlatan has compared himself to
Business & Money
Why Swedes don't want the euro
Fastighetsbyrån
Gallery
Property of the week: Vika, Falun
Sponsored Article
Food, fun, and reliable sun: Summer in Dubrovnik
National
Is this the most Swedish tattoo ever?
Sponsored Article
How Stockholm startups help new employees feel at home
Gallery
People-watching: May 20th-22nd
National
How to really annoy a Swede abroad
Sponsored Article
'Only soft power can defeat radicalism'
National
How this war veteran is warming hearts in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Why Stockholm attracts so many successful researchers
Gallery
People-watching: May 18th
National
How this Swede's viral ad totally nailed Stockholm's housing crisis
Gallery
Property of the week: Vasastaden, Gothenburg
Sponsored Article
'Sweden gives artists the space to follow their dreams'
Lifestyle
The best Swedish cities for dating
Sponsored Article
Retiring abroad: ensuring your health is covered
Gallery
People-watching: May 13th-15th
Sponsored Article
Can you afford to live in Stockholm? (Hint: yes)
Culture
BLOG: Eurovision as it happened
National
Why a 116-year-old Swede isn't the world's oldest woman
National
Youth unemployment falls in Sweden
Gallery
People-watching: May 11th
Gallery
People-watching: May 6th-8th
Politics
Why Sweden's Greens are in free fall
National
Can these cartoon Swedes help foreigners blend in?
3,350
jobs available
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
psdmedia.se