Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Freedom of Controversial Speech

Written by johnleemk on 1:43:29 pm Jun 25, 2007.

Some skeptics of freedom of expression sometimes muse on the possibility of restricting controversial speech while permitting less unorthodox ideas to continue to circulate without restraint.

This is certainly a tempting proposal on the face of it. After all, looking at all the junk which tabloid newspapers put out, and at some lame conspiracy theories packaged in sensationalist language, one can certainly see little justification for absolute freedom of speech.

However, even though there simply isn't such a thing as absolute freedom of expression, that doesn't mean it is right to limit the expression of controversial views. That is the whole point of freedom of speech.

After all, why do we need to allow people to express uncontroversial viewpoints? Nobody would complain, so allowing freedom of speech here is probably the textbook definition of redundant.

Meanwhile, controversial viewpoints are typically those which are either really bad ideas, or really good ones. There is rarely a middle ground; it is possible to create a work of art which uses the f-word six dozen times, but it is equally possible to create some pointless and meaningless piece of drivel which uses the f-word three dozen times.

Controversial speech is why freedom of speech exists, because many (if not all) good ideas have always been unorthodox and heatedly opposed when first introduced. You may try to ban "bad" controversial speech while allowing the "good" speech, but this opens a different can of worms, for who will define what is good and what is bad?

In the first place, "good" and "bad" are subjective concepts. It is impossible for any two individuals to agree completely on what constitutes "good" and "bad".

In other words, what is a perfectly reasonable exercise of freedom of expression to one person can be complete drivel to another individual. Who is to say who is in the right?

That is why it is best to trust in the free marketplace of ideas — allow people to sell their ideas. Given enough time, if the idea is good, people will buy it. If it isn't, the seller goes out of business.

There certainly ought to be limits on freedom of speech — inciting people to commit a crime and defaming others' reputations should never be allowed. But these are cases where it is objectively possible to draw the line between "good" and "bad", and this is the furthest we should go in limiting freedom of speech.

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