The Saturday Debate: Freedom of speech should have no limits

by Stephen Tall on February 27, 2010

Here’s your starter for ten as we continue our new Saturday slot posing a view for debate:

All liberals will happily sign up to the concept of free speech. But the practise of it often makes us uneasy. JS Mill summed up the dilemma by asserting that while all opinions should be aired, one can’t “shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre”. In other words, freedom of speech must be tempered by individual responsibility. The inevitable question then arises: who should exercise that responsibility: the individual, or should it be regulated by the state in some way?

One of the less contentious areas of legislation restricting freedom of speech – one which Lib Dems seem generally to favour – is incitement to hatred. Thus it is a criminal offence to provoke others to commit violent acts on the basis of people’s race, ethnicity or religion. We can all agree that such hate-speech is wrong: but should it also be against the law? After all, surely it still remains the responsibility of the individual who actually commits acts of violence?

Children are taught from a young age that they must be responsible for their own actions; that it is no good blaming someone else who ‘told them’ to do something that was wrong. And yet the moment children reach maturity the law reverses this principle: suddenly it is acceptable for the state to say that violence can be incited, that individuals are not necessarily wholly responsible for their own actions. Surely in a truly liberal society freedom of speech would be absolute, with no restrictions at all imposed by the state?

Discuss …