Do I Agree with Evelyn Beatrice Hall?

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” A particularly weighty comment on free speech made by Evelyn Beatrice Hall. I chanced upon it while researching female philosophers of the 19th century and it struck me with interest – what did I actually think? This statement refers to a similar point attributed to Voltaire that states that even though one might disagree with the content of an individual’s statement, we endorse completely their entitlement to expressing their opinion. Free speech has long been considered a fundamental human right, perhaps first becoming a distinct term in the Greek concept of ‘parrhesia’: Hall seems to concur with this opinion in her statement. On the other hand, we can argue that this approach by Hall is too extreme and there are some statements that should never be said or defended by anyone. For example, many would consider this statement to be an unforgivable one unsuitable of being said: a rapist describing how good rape is.

Let us take this question in different fields or areas of life. First, law. An exceptionally important field to have a well-assessed answer to how much free speech should be allowed. In law, as it stands, there are strict guidelines about free speech. Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers’; thus, it encourages no limits at all on free speech, and is even a clause in human rights legislation, which clearly shows that freedom of speech is held on an exceedingly high pedestal. I believe that this could be dangerous; the right to speak one’s opinions should be welcomed, as each human has personal expression and thought which should be shared in communities, but the clause in the Declaration makes no reference to any regulation of free speech. This is where law jurisdiction becomes important. For a crime to be declared (in a range of countries including the UK), ‘actus reus’ and ‘mens rea’ (guilty act and guilty mind respectively) both must occur. This is important because the intention behind an action is often what classifies said action’s status of honesty. The UK Race Relations Act of 1965 banned racial discrimination in public places and made the promotion of hatred on the grounds of ‘colour, race, or ethnic or national origins’ an offence. It is particularly important to have legislation regarding free speech, as all judgements are made according to such instruction, and is a reference point in specific cases.

Moving right on to the next. Politics is another area where free speech is significant. President Trump was famously allowed to spread misinformation about COVID-19, suggesting to his citizens inappropriate solutions to the contraction of the virus and dissuading them from receiving medically reinforced vaccinations. It has not only been in this topic, but also in his uncensored views on certain minority groups such as the Muslim community or LGBT one, that he has perpetuated harm, seen by a rise in hate crime towards such groups he has targeted. He is, of course, not the only example of an extremely noticeable world leader spreading information that has been obviously damaging. The nature of politics is that it is extremely visible, and the ones involved are representatives of large groups of people. Their audience and reach are massive, and the weight of their words is considerable; therefore, free speech must be limited, and regulation should be established. On the other hand, if censorship is enabled, there is a likelihood that the state could abuse such control; important messages which may not present positively for the state could be shielded from public view. Furthermore, it is difficult to know exactly what to censor and to what extent, because how one should measure truth is indeed a complex question.

A context in which free speech becomes more muddled and wrought with interpersonal difficulties: religion. Some question the sense in allowing all religious individuals to express their views, and others believe that faith should be shared. It is certainly true that one’s cultural experiences should be displayed; however, free speech in religion has yielded results that have included spreading cases of terrorism and the formation of cults. Viewing free speech and religion from a different angle, the freedom of speech and of religion are often seen as conflicting, as what one individual could disagree with in a religious movement may not be accepted as a valid opinion, due to a limit on free speech. France is a country renowned for bans on religious expression, banning niqabs in 2010 and having an overall prejudice for Islamic expression. This is where freedom of both speech and religion intertwine: the government disallow passive and benign expression. In America, an example of a religious group displaying cultish behaviour is the Westborough Baptist Church, who declared that ‘God hates fags’ among other rhetoric against Jews and transgender people, just to name a couple. This group is significant as they truly cause harm towards others, rather than perpetuate bizarre yet mostly harmless opinions like other cultish religions; therefore, the law is important, in that it clearly states free speech should be exercised until offence is caused.

If we zoom outwards, society is the macrocosm that everything intermingles in. In society at large, free speech is a very prevalent issue in the daily lives of all people. The same issues with unregulated free speech present here as in law, politics, and religion, but show themselves in an outward manner, as the society is where individuals interact. Therefore, hate speech is extremely relevant in this sphere; in this case, free speech should absolutely be limited. However, there are times where free speech is extremely beneficial, even necessary. Many people, in hearing about experiences that have happened to others, can feel less alone and could even gain new knowledge which they would have been barred to if the freedom of speech had not been practised. The goal of an efficient society is always a desirable one; if free speech is allowed, individuals could exchange their skills without impediment to accomplish tasks. On the other hand, too much free speech could also yield disadvantageous outcomes that may slow down teamwork even further. Therefore, both extremes are unbeneficial, and a balance should be explored between complete freedom and total censorship.

To sum up: I believe that there should be limits to free speech. The risks involved with unlimited free speech are severe: in society, the direct mental and indirect physical consequences of complete freedom from an individual or organisation could be widespread; no limits to free speech in a country’s legislation could yield problematic judicial rulings, including allowing a perpetrator of crime-causing speech to avoid penalty. Free speech can undoubtedly be dangerous; where there is free speech, there could also be free action which could descend into anarchical scenarios. Additionally, even if the right to free speech is defined more exactly, it would be difficult to consider what qualifies as a legitimate or sufficient offence in relation to evaluating a case of allegedly harmful free speech. However, simply because there is a difficulty in the definition of a curb should not warrant a complete disregard to the source. Legislation should be applied where it could be directly; the remainder should be taken on a case-by-case basis, and with the knowledge that it is never possible to solve 100% of all issues regarding free speech.

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