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July 11, 2020 / Congau

The Spirit of Free Speech

The spirit of the law is often different from the letter of the law since it may be difficult to capture the former in dry paragraphs aiming to spell out clearly what can and what cannot be done. It then often happens that the idea behind the law gets confused and even forgotten, and the rules take the form of petrified principles that must be obeyed at any cost without knowing why anymore. The noble principle of free speech has suffered this fate. Whenever that label has been placed on an action no one would dare to condemn it.

It is of course commonly understood that free speech is not about speech in the literal sense. The use of vocal cords is obviously not necessary, writing serves the same purpose, and so does a number of other means of expression that don’t even use words. If a picture can say more than a thousand words, a picture is also a form of speech, and soon you find yourself arguing that any photograph or drawing should be allowed based on the principle of free speech.

Maybe any picture should indeed be permitted, but in that case, it must be justified by some other principle than the one discussed here. It is called freedom of speech, but that name inaccurately expresses its spirit even in the extended sense. There was never a point in defending the right to say just anything, to allow any meaningless combination of words or images. Shouting and screaming and incoherent rambling may pose no threat to anyone, but no particular benefit is to be gained from it either, neither for society nor for the person engaged in such utterances. What is valuable, and what society should always protect, both for the benefit of the community and the individual, is the freedom of opinion. When a “speech” whatever form it takes actually expresses some sort of opinion, then it addresses the spirit of free speech.

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