Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Clarifying Freedom of Expression

Written by johnleemk on 3:40:53 pm May 18, 2007.
Categories: ,

Freedom of speech is one right particularly cherished by those in the West. It is not uncommon to hear people insisting that they have the right to speak their mind, and that this right cannot be infringed.

There is a problem, however, with going too far in permitting freedom of speech. Contrary to the oft-quoted American aphorism, there are times when extremism in pursuit of liberty is no virtue.

For example, there is the issue of defamation. You cannot accuse someone of wrongdoing and hide behind the excuse of freedom of expression. Unless you can prove you have good reason for saying what you say, you can have civil penalties imposed on you.

Another common example often brought up by those who think giving up some freedom of expression is a good idea is falsely shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theatre. Obviously, this is not protected by the conventional idea of freedom of speech.

But one particularly striking instance of an occasion where freedom of speech is not absolute occurs when there is a conflict of rights. Does freedom of speech override the right to private property?

At first glance, you might think the answer is yes — but think again. Do I have the right to stage a political rally in your living room? To campaign against free trade in your office parking lot?

Few people would be up in arms if you promptly evicted me from your premises. (One of the few exceptions, I would imagine, are socialists and communists.)

The reason why limitations on freedom of speech exist in the first place is the same reason limitations exist on any form of liberty. As it has been put before, "The right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins."

I am free to exercise my rights, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of any other legal entity. I cannot disrupt traffic on the highway to save the whales, nor can I exercise my right to conjugal relations on the street corner.

There is no such thing as absolute freedom. As the founder of utilitarian philosophy, Jeremy Bentham, once put it, how do I enforce my property rights over my house? I do so by preventing you from exercising your freedom of movement to enter my home.

Nowadays, especially on the internet (where everything seems to be public domain, even though in reality it is not), it is common to see people assume that their right to freedom of speech overrules the right to property.

That makes it important to go back to basics. In even the most pure form of liberty, I am free to do whatever I like, as long as I do not infringe that same right of others. This simple rule of thumb lends debates about such freedoms a sense of perspective.


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