Freedom of Expression as a Fundamental Right

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Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (United Nations) This unlimited freedom has created numerous controversies over time, with different media and over various political situations which begs the question: “To What Extent Should This Right be Left Unrestricted?” Fundamentalists argue that speech is a basic human right and thus no one has the authority to regulate its exercise.

However, there are various dangers to unrestrained freedom of expression including hate speech and subsequent hate crimes, the spread of false news and the moral panic that ensues as well and the extreme polarization of opinion that eventually leads to a mob mentality. Thus, this widespread debate not only relates to the principle of freedom but also the inherent human condition and man’s nature. One may argue that man cannot be trusted with the power of freedom of expression in any form. With the increasingly untrustworthy and extremist views becoming more prevalent within society, the values of free speech become more distorted leading to the idea that this fundamental right should be limited and controlled.

While the idea of freedom of speech can be historically traced back to ancient Greece, the exact boundaries differ geographically. While the United States of America disregards certain acts that may come under the umbrella of free speech, according to data, “flag burning is an example of symbolic speech that is protected under the First Amendment.” This was overturned after the Texas vs Johnson law case after the perpetrator “doused an American flag with kerosene and lit it on fire in front of the Dallas City Hall.” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica) This indicates the dangers of freedom of expression that have been categorically highlighted through historical trends that are exemplified by cases such as “Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel [incensing] Muslims by writing about the Prophet Mohammed and Miss World, provoking riots which leave more than 200 dead,” (Smith and Torres), and “Race Relations Act of 1965 [which] had led to repeated prosecutions of black leaders, whose rhetoric had tended thus far to be more inflamed than that of white bigots” (Abrams 753).

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Each instance of hate speech was closely followed by an incident of violence with the recurring pattern becoming almost routine. Some may argue that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment and therefore one cannot take these instances as an exemplification of how freedom of expression should be restricted. However, outside the scope of the United States, the laws regarding freedom of speech and “hate speech” specifically are diversely varied. In Pakistan, 2015 was the year PERMA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) “[warned] private television channels to not broadcast what it called hate speech” (Zaidi). Thus, to provide an unrestricted freedom can be seen as contributing to increased incidents of violence and bigotry.

With the rise of social media such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, the spread of false news becomes a global phenomenon. Social media allows ordinary people to become both producers and consumers of news which inevitably leads to a lot of power in the hands of each individual. Celebrities are no stranger to this power, becoming victims of cyber leaks, cyber bullying as well as cyber hoax. The celebrity, Jaden Smith, has been a repeated victim of false news with headlines and “tweets” claiming he had committed suicide “four years after a similarly cruel prank.” (McGeorge) The constant frenzy of misleading information has resulted in analysis stating that “media manipulation may contribute to decreased trust of mainstream media, increased misinformation, and further radicalization” (Warwick and Lewis qtd. in Kalsnes). Moreover, disinformation is used in advertising in order to increase profits. Product placement in Instagram posts of influencers such as Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber and David Beckham ensure that the focus is on the celebrity rather than the actual content and composition of what is being advertised.

Products such as FitTea which are not FDA approved use this tactic to make maximum profit off fan followings. This form of advertising is categorized as “often based on facts, albeit in an incomplete set, often concentrating on the positive aspects of the product or company being advertised.” (Kalsnes) Some claim that is the very ideals of freedom of speech that erase propagandist elements prevalent in media. In fact, history reflects leaders such as Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler using media to further their own agendas. However, with the development of mass media and ownership being given to those traditionally considered as the consumers, the avenue of news is being constantly skewed and abused. Thus, freedom of speech creates an avenue for manipulation, propaganda and false advertisement that entraps the population causing them to buy into certain concepts and products without having accurate information.

Moreover, freedom of speech incites a sense of mob mentality. In California “100 protesters in black scarves jumped police barricades and reportedly attacked a group of President Trump’s supporters, injuring at least six people, including a police officer.” (“Free Speech Under Fire: Mob Mentality”). The polarization of opinions causes factions to develop within society which creates barriers based on social, economic and political allegiances. Furthermore, it pits certain groups against others such as Muslims versus Christians. This also creates a circle of offense as people attack each other based on their identity (religion, age, gender and more). Governments use these tactics in order to manipulate society and encourage their own propagandist ideals. The reflection of this manipulation is seen in the hegemonic perceptions popular in society which further emphasize these societal division. As the world globalizes, these mobs become larger and more prominent, instigating the same trend of violence which is seen through hate speech and false news. “The dichotomy of positive and negative liberty, first explicitly theorized by Isaiah Berlin in the late 1950s” (Fowler 10) debates man’s responsibility when it comes to being given rights however incidents of hate crime suggest that man is not ready for such a responsibility and therefore this fundamental right should be limited if not completely taken away.

On the other hand, a freedom to expression ensures that every citizen nurtures with the principles of equality and liberty as well, that the predominant ethics in society are not based on the capitalist, elite ideology and that propaganda and media regulation do not manipulate society. In addition, it is asserted that “without free speech, the enjoyment of other rights is not possible.” (Howie) Yet, this uncontrolled power also results in extreme abuse of the fundamental right through violent means. Moreover, a culture of hate is formed within the strata of society that spurs intergenerational boundaries and causes a sense of alienation. The freedom of speech becomes a disuniting element rather than a value that inculcates a sense of nationhood.

In conclusion, while it is maintained that freedom of expression is absolutely a fundamental right, it cannot be left unrestrained as the negative consequences outweigh the positive outcomes. While freedom of speech has been earned over time, even through the Suffrage’s fight to remain silent, there is an inherent need for limits as the trend of systematic violence has grown tenfold. This can be seen as a cumulative effect of globalization and the rise of social media which work in tandem to allow anyone and everyone to take control of what information is being expressed. In order to control this unlimited power, the governments should combine as per the United Nations to create a system that comprehensively describes what freedom of expression entails universally. Examples of systems on a smaller scale include the “European Convention on Human Rights [which] provides that any limitation of freedom of expression must be prescribed by law, ‘necessary in a democratic society,’” (“Limits on Freedom of Expression “ 3) This ensures the same principles throughout the regions and allows a clear-cut view and timeline on how to deal with situations of hate crime, media propaganda or mob attacks. Therein freedom of expression will be defined as the right to express oneself without detrimental effect to others on a grander scale, changing perceptions and erasing barriers that have caused myriads of divisions within society.

Works Cited

  1. 'Is Pemra's Directive Aimed at Curbing Hate Speech?: Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF).' Paksitan Press Foundtion. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2019.
  2. 'Universal Declaration of Human Rights.' United Nations. United Nations, n.d. Web. 12 Nov. 2019.
  3. Abrams, Floyd. 'Hate Speech: The Present Implications of a Historical Dilemma.' 37.4 (1992): 743-56. Print.
  4. Fowler, Adam. The Positive- and Negative-Right Conceptions of Freedom of Speech and the Specter of Reimposing the Broadcast Fairness Doctrine ... or Something Like It. Thesis. University of South Florida, 2010. N.p.: Scholar Commons, n.d. Print.
  5. Getty. 'Jaden Smith STILL Not Dead after Vile 'suicide' Hoax Continues to Baffle Fans.' Mirror. N.p., 11 Sept. 2016. Web. 12 Nov. 2019.
  6. Editors. 'Freedom of Speech.' A&E Television Networks, 04 Dec. 2017. Web. 12 Nov. 2019.
  7. Howie, Emily. 'Protecting the Human Right to Freedom of Expression in International Law.' International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 20.1 (2017): 12-15. Print.
  8. Kalsnes, Bente. 'Fake News.' Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. 26 Sept. 2018. Oxford University Press. Web. 12 Nov. 2019
  9. Limits on Freedom of Expression. Rep. The Law Library Of Congress, 2019. Web. 2019.
  10. Smith, David, and Luc Torres. 'Timeline: A History of Free Speech.' The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 05 Feb. 2006. Web. 12 Nov. 2019.
  11. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 'Texas v. Johnson.' Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 June 2019. Web. 12 Nov. 2019.
  12. TribuneReview. 'Free Speech under Fire: Mob Mentality.' N.p., 31 Aug. 2017. Web. 12 Nov. 2019.
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