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July 10, 2020 / Congau

Freedom of Opinion

The right to free speech is not given us by nature. Mill’s argument is entirely utilitarian, claiming that society will be better off if it grants its members this freedom. He may or may not be right about that, maybe restricting speech would actually make a society healthier, but we will not go into that. We will just assume that free speech is beneficial. But what could speech possible consist of that would make it conceivable that society could benefit from it?

Freedom of speech is a misnomer. What is actually meant, and the thing society needs, is freedom of opinion, or the right to express any opinion whatsoever in the public space. If an expression cannot somehow be reduced to an opinion, there is no particular reason why the state should protect it, at least not based on the same principle. Should any word be allowed, any picture, any piece of art? Maybe, but the principle of free speech is often not a relevant reason to allow it.

Let’s take the example of pornography. There may be good arguments why a state should not ban it, but the principle of free speech is not one of them. Pornography does not in any way express an opinion about anything. It’s images that some find offensive and some do not, and the debate between them must evolve around very different principles.

Freedom of opinion, once it has been accepted as a valid principle, must override any other concerns, and to consider an opinion as offensive is certainly not something that can be used to silence its expression. Any, if not all opinions are potentially offensive and if protection against offense had the highest priority, freedom of opinion would effectively be eliminated. Still, probably no one would argue that all kinds of offense should be tolerated, and if can be demonstrated that no actual opinion is expressed while offending, the action may be punishable.

To be continued

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