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November 2, 2019 / Congau

The Meaning of Speech

“Freedom of speech” is a misnomer. We are not literally concerned with speech as in “an articulated sound coming out of a human mouth”, and not even when it is extended to sign language and writing. Allowing people to say just anything, any more or less meaningless phrase, has no particular value.

What we are actually concerned with is freedom of opinion. There are undeniable social benefits following from the general right to express any opinion whatsoever, but nothing is to be gained from allowing any random outbreak of words.

Using bad words, swear words for example, is not a matter of free speech. I’m not saying it should be outlawed, not at all, only that it cannot be defended with reference to free speech. On the other hand, the presence of bad sounding words cannot be used as an excuse for banning the expression of an actual opinion.

Let me illustrate this with an example. There was a recent case in Germany where someone was convicted for saying online that “homosexuals belong in the gas chamber”. Now, this is of course a despicable statement, but though it is a disgusting opinion, that person could not have been punished if the German state had been consistent in defending freedom of speech. However, if someone said: “homosexuals are f…ing bastards!”, that would just be meaningless abuse and not an expression of opinion at all. A person could be convicted for saying such a thing without the principle of free speech being violated.

This principle is presumably a cornerstone of Western society, and if that is so, it is of course important to have a clear understanding of what it is really about. Like so many other noble principles it easily becomes an empty formula where its deeper significance seems to be forgotten.

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