The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, signed by almost every country, guarantees freedom of expression. That basically means Freedom of Speech is a principle that pretty much everyone agrees with and yet debate rages over whether or not such freedom of expression should be allowed. Like so many debates in the modern world though the debate is centred on the application rather than the principle because when everyone agrees with a proposition chances are it is either enormously profound or totally meaningless. Freedom of speech is a case in point.
Where should freedom of speech begin and end? The debate is not in the concept but in the detail because even the covenant limits the scope of this right. Restrictions are possible for the respect of the rights or reputations of others as well as for the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals.
So it is easy to be for free speech in principle. It is far less obvious what this will mean in practice.
Even the straightforward exceptions are not so straightforward anymore. Take the oft-quoted example that nobody should have the right to cause a mass panic by crying ''fire'' in a packed theatre. Makes sense in a packed theatre but the Internet creates problems with even that rule. What is a virtual packed theatre? Would Wikileaks yelling ‘radiation leak’ online constitute the same thing for example?
What about the less obvious cases?
There are numerous cases where it is not so clear to determine where the balance should lie between the protection of free speech and the protection of other rights. Take advertising, for example. Free speech does not only apply to political opinions but to commercial ones as well. Nevertheless, we would probably agree that advertising aimed at young children needs limits.
That's fair enough. But what about advertising to adults? In opinion polls, most people say they are personally never conned by advertising. However, the very same people also believe that others regularly fall for misleading ads and therefore strict regulations were necessary. Many countries have banned advertising of products that have health consequences such as tobacco and alcohol. Where do we start and where do we stop?
It's the same story with political speech. In some countries there are limitations on political opinions. In parts of Europe Holocaust denial is illegal. In Turkey a ''denigration of the Turkish nation'' can land you in jail. Burning the flag is a valid protest in some countries and a hanging offence in others.
You would think that we could only support such restrictions on free speech if we believed that society could not handle it. However, in a society in which we all regularly have to make myriad decisions, why should we not also be able to decide how to respond to unpleasant or objectionable statements? Instead of banning them, why not choose to ignore or ridicule them? When it comes to freedom of speech the law often goes out of its way to prove itself an ass.
Realistically, freedom of speech cannot be limitless. Yet instead of relying on laws, perhaps we should trust common sense and civil society. Perhaps we should rely on weight of opinion rather than fear one opinion. Perhaps it’s too late.