• 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
US election
What Americans in Sweden think of Trump and Clinton
The Local spoke to Americans in Sweden after the first US presidential debate. Photo: David Goldman/AP/TT

The Local spoke to four US voters based in Sweden about who they are planning on voting for in the November election, and it looks like it's complicated.

Video
Why Swedes want Nasa to send a condom into space
Should a condom be sent into space? It's the burning question some Swedes have posed. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT & Craig Rubadoux/AP

'We can't be sure what alien sex organs look like.'

Mum gives birth on toilet after being told to take paracetamol
File photo of a baby not related to the story. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

A woman has described how she was told to take a painkiller when she phoned a hospital in Ystad, southern Sweden, in pain. Just moments later she gave birth to a baby in the toilet.

Indians in Sweden told to be wary of travel document scam
File photo of a man using a phone not related to the story. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

The Embassy of India in Stockholm has urged Indian citizens in Sweden to be wary of scammers who ask for money to fix fabricated errors in travel documents.

Swedes shell out for season's first lobster
Meet Pontus Johansson and his lobster. Photo: Thomas Johansson/TT

Best not to look at the price tag.

Witnesses 'afraid to talk' to police about Malmö shooting
Police investigating the shooting in Malmö. Photo: Emil Langvad/TT

Police are appealing for witnesses to a shooting which killed a man and injured three in a residential street of Malmö – but it is an uphill battle.

Opinion
Swedish leaders need to be prepared for tech challenges
Will robots take over your jobs? Photo: Eric Piermont/AP

Will your job still exist in ten years' time? How will society and businesses adapt to the advancements that are on their way?

Opinion
'If Sweden really wants startups, drop the red tape'
Tech star Tayyab Shabab, who is being threatened with deportation. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

Swedish politicians are keen to talk up the country's startups – but their migration rules threaten to strangle them, argues The Local's managing editor James Savage.

Startup heavyweights back tech ace told to leave Sweden
Spotify founder Daniel Ek is one of the big tech names backing Tayyab Shabab (right). Photo: Ingvar Karmhed/SvD/TT & personal

Major names in the tech community have rallied behind a developer who was told he must leave Sweden within a month due to an admin error made by his former employer.

Why Sweden could deport hundreds of refugee children
A home for lone refugee children in Sweden. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Several hundred lone refugee children could now be sent home from Sweden due to a change in how the rule on exceptional circumstances is applied when making asylum decisions.

Sponsored Article
Let's Talk: a personal Swedish language tutor in your pocket
Analysis & Opinion
'If Sweden really wants startups, drop the red tape on migration'
Sponsored Article
‘I view the world in a different way now’
Gallery
Property of the week: Gotland
National
Trump an 'embarrassment' Springsteen tells Sweden
Blog updates

7 September

Svensk or svenska? (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hejsan! My inbox is full of questions :-). Here’s one about when to use “svensk” and…" READ »

 

23 August

A Summer in Sweden (The Diplomatic Dispatch) »

"For our first year here in Sweden we decided to have all our holidays in Sweden.…" READ »

 
 
 
Sponsored Article
'Creating a sense of home': Collective living in Stockholm
Gallery
People-watching: September 23rd-25th
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
Politics
Russian Sweden Democrat aide resigns over suspect deal
National
Muslim teacher leaves job after not shaking male colleague's hand
Travel
Why we adore autumn in Sweden
Sponsored Article
Gran Canaria: 'So much more than beaches'
Gallery
People-watching: September 21st
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
National
Stockholmers hunt killer badger after attack on neighbourhood hipster cat
The Local Voices
Why this Russian developer is committed to helping refugees - with tech
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
National
Six key points in Sweden's budget plan
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
The Local Voices
How a Swedish name finally made recruiters notice this Iranian's CV
Gallery
Property of the week: Luleå
Sponsored Article
Retiring abroad: ensuring your health is covered
Gallery
People-watching: September 16th-18th
Sponsored Article
'There was no future for me in Turkey'
Culture
Why Swedish TV has given these kids' trucks a sex swap
Sponsored Article
7 reasons you should join Sweden’s ’a-kassa’
National
TIMELINE: Everything you need to know about the Julian Assange case
Gallery
People-watching: September 14th
Politics
Why Sweden is putting troops on holiday dream island Gotland
The Local Voices
'What I mean when I say: I came here to blow myself up'
Society
VIDEO: Are Swedes that unfriendly?
Features
INTERVIEW: How Arthur the jungle dog opened hearts and minds
Gallery
Property of the week: Smögen, Västra Götaland
Society
Sweden's ancient forest tongue Elfdalian fights for survival
National
Where Sweden's foreigners are from
Gallery
People-watching: September 9th-11th
The Local Voices
'Whenever I apply for jobs I’m treated like an unwanted stranger'
The Local Voices
Is Swedish bosses' ignorance keeping refugees out of jobs?
2,963
jobs available