Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the liberty to articulate opinions without fear of retaliation or censorship. While the idea is old — John Milton argued that a marketplace of ideas should be as open and free as possible in 1644 — it took until 1948 before freedom of speech gained global recognition via the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. But what exactly is it, what statements are protected by it, and which ones aren’t?
the full story
This is Greta Thunberg and this is the Swedish parliament. Thunberg is 15 years old, and she is doing a “school strike for climate”. Sitting there alone, she is smiled at and even insulted. Some say, go back to school. Others tell her to give up.
But she doesn’t want to listen and continues. And soon there are a few others, who like her ideas and admire her commitment. And then, one day, the local press comes, does an interview and Greta’s photo goes around the world.
The few that joined Greta soon became many and many became millions and in countries all around the world young people began expressing their opinions about climate change because they want to build a better future.
Greta used rights that are laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Accordingly, everyone has the right to express their opinion freely and to meet freely and peacefully with others.
So what exactly is freedom of speech and where does it end?
freedom of speech
Freedom of speech is a principle that supports our freedom to articulate opinions and ideas without the fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. It protects all forms of communication, from speech, to text, to art and is a constitutional law of liberal societies.
Freedom of speech includes having access to information to prevent censorship, and limits state control over what we should and what we shouldn’t know and say. It means freedom to express an opinion regardless of whether the opinion is justified or unfounded, emotional or rational, valuable or not.
And it means you are also allowed to remain silent and say nothing at all.
understand the scope
One form of expressing your opinion is forming an assembly, which usually begins with 2 people, who come together with a common purpose. But freedom of speech has its limitations. For example, it doesn’t mean we can state something as a fact if it can be proven wrong by objective standards.
So when Greta says: “The global biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people can live in luxury” she expresses an opinion, because her claim cannot be objectively verified.
But when she begins a speech with: “My name is Greta Thunberg, I am 15 years old. I am from Sweden” then that’s a factual assertion, because you can check if that’s all correct.
In other words: The first statement is protected by the freedom of speech, because it forms an opinion.
Greta introducing herself is nice, but it’s not protected, because it is just a factual statement which can be verified. Also not protected is insulting others or the assertion of untrue facts.
Freedom of assembly also has its limits. Gatherings must take place peacefully and
must not jeopardize public safety, which can happen if people bring arms, or riot and become violent. So Greta is allowed to sit in front of the parliament with posters, but she is not allowed to smear the building with slogans.
Greta used her freedom of speech to inspire millions to help put climate change on top of the political agenda. And while we certainly want more people to stand up for what they believe in, many of us live in societies in which expressing one’s opinions isn’t possible.
what do you think?
So what do you think about freedom of expression? Do we need more? Do we need less? Where does it start and where does it end? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
- Freedom of speech – Wikipedia.org
- First Amendment to the United States Constitution – Wikipedia.org
- What is hate speech – Un.org
- Look at this list of all older and current protests around the globe.
- Does espionage enter under the protection of free speech rights? Learn about the famous case of Schnek vs United States
- Watch the full documentary about free speech activist Edward Snowden
- Watch the full documentary about Reddit founder and internet activist Aaron Schwarz
- Start your class with a short introduction about Freedom of Speech and what it means around the globe
- Watch Sprouts’ video on Freedom of Speech
- Separate your class in two groups and present a case where the idea of freedom of speech is put to the test: For example cases where people share Nazi propaganda, misinformation, or the case of Schnek vs United States (where Schnek distributed pamphlets against drafting during World War I).
- Once the case is clear, let one group defend freedom of speech and the other argue for its limitations.
- At the end of the debate, ask the students to share what they learned about freedom of speech and its limitations.
- Script: Nicole Leifeld
- Editor: Jonas Koblin
- Artist: Pascal Gaggelli
- Voice: Matt Abbott
- Coloring: Nalin
- Editing: Peera Lertsukittipongsa
- Production: Selina Bador
- Fact-checking: Ludovico Saint Amour Di Chanaz
- Sound Design: Miguel Ojeda