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
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.