TOPIC GUIDE: Free speech

"Free speech is not an absolute"

PUBLISHED: 01 Sep 2012

AUTHOR: Tom Slater & Alex Hochuli

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The question of whether there should be limits to freedom of speech has been constantly re-examined in the wake of recent events. In 2006, incitement law was extended to cover incitement to religious hatred and the new precedent this set has lead to a number of controversies [Ref: Guardian]. The Scottish parliament recently passed a law prohibiting sectarian and religious chants at football matches in order to quell an historic rivalry between predominantly Protestant and Catholic supporters of Scotland’s two biggest teams [Ref: BBC News].  Such bans have been seen by some as important safe-guards which protect religious denominations from harm, yet others have felt that they represent a distinct affront to freedom of speech. Beyond incitement laws other recent issues have come to the fore in this debate, including that of Welsh student Liam Stacey, jailed for a series of offensive and racially aggravated statements on social networking site Twitter, raising questions about online accountability [Ref: BBC News]; and the case of Emma West who was videoed on a Croydon tram, and subsequently arrested and charged with racially aggravated public order offences [Ref: Telegraph], highlighting the issue of public offence and outrage, and how we deal with these today.  Furthermore, while incitement to hatred against gay people remains beyond the remit of law, a series of adverts which suggested homosexuality is a treatable condition were banned by Mayor Boris Johnson [Ref: Journal]. Johnson claimed this was in the name of maintaining the capital’s tolerant reputation, yet others have felt this move curtailed free speech merely to avoid causing undue offence.  While free speech is still widely considered a central democratic right, these events have lead many to feel that it has conceivable limits. Deciding if freedom of speech should be seen as an absolute remains essential in determining the nature of our society.

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Are the traditional arguments for freedom of speech irrelevant, or more relevant than ever?
The Enlightenment thinker and defender of human reason over religious dogma Voltaire is associated with the sentiment that ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. The philosopher JS Mill defended freedom of speech on the basis that it is only by allowing beliefs to be criticised that we can be justified in believing that they are true. Some argue these ideas are still fundamental and that free debate, not restrictions, remains the only way of countering false or offensive views. Others say absolute freedom of speech would be all very well if debates in society were conducted like well-mannered discussions in school classrooms. But in our society, where the media has a powerful position and where many social groups feel marginalised and ignored, such positions are idealistic and outdated.

Should speech be limited to avoid causing offence? Do we have a right not to be offended?
Certain actions are criminalised in order to protect people from physical harm. Extending this argument to speech, it is argued that some types of speech, particularly hate speech, should be banned because the harm they cause is just as serious. In a culturally diverse society, good manners and respect for others’ beliefs should take precedence. On the other hand, it is argued that if one accepts some limits to free speech on grounds of offence, it will lead to competing demands by other groups not be offended, leading to an overall loss of freedom. Also, it’s claimed that the best way to oppose speech you don’t like is to use your own free speech against it, and that the whole point of freedom of speech is to protect ‘extreme’ speech; after all, by definition ‘acceptable’ or ‘mainstream’ speech needs no such protection.

How does free speech relate to democracy?
Advocates of absolute freedom of speech say that in a diverse society, instead of trying to prevent offence, the right to be offensive should be seen as essential to democracy. Diverging values lead to political conflict and the only way to progress is through airing different views. Looked at this way, free speech is the basis for all other political values as it assumes people are rational and fully capable of assessing different arguments. Those wary of protecting absolute freedom of speech take a very different view. They argue that speech is not only used to make rational arguments, but to foment hatred and stigmatise powerless minorities. Rather than free speech being egalitarian, it is too often used to oppress those ‘without a voice’.

How do we deal with ‘dangerous’ speech? Don’t all rights come with responsibilities?
One argument against absolute freedom of speech is that speech is never really ‘free’ but has consequences; like all rights, it comes with responsibilities. Proponents of the above argument point out, for example, that there is no right to shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre. They claim that this can be extended to other areas, such as speech that incites others to directly harm third parties, which justifies banning certain inflammatory types of speech. Advocates retort that in the political arena we can reflect on what is said; we do not just follow blindly what we are told. Further, the fact that some illegal acts incidentally involve speech does not detract from the absolute nature of freedom of speech as a political value. Shouting ‘fire!’ is more analogous to the unnecessary pulling of a fire alarm, which is also illegal, than to other types of speech.


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

The Development of Free Speech in Modern Britain

John Roberts Speakers’ Corner Trust 1 March 2011


Britain needs more free speech. Change this law now

Timothy Garton Ash Guardian 6 June 2012

The Limits of Free Speech

Joyce Arthur RH Reality Check 21 September 2011


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

I don’t fear the trolls - I enjoy their absurdities

Lucy Worsley Telegraph 13 April 2016

What is the best way to stop internet trolls?

Chris Baraniuk BBC News 21 March 2016

Receiving online abuse has now become a badge of honour

Douglas Murray Spectator 2 March 2016

In the age of ISIS, will you lose freedoms of Arab Spring?

Rebecca MacKinnon CNN 25 January 2016

Twitter tackles the free speech conundrum

Emily Bell Guardian 10 January 2016

Why Facebook needs to do more to protect you from online abuse

Fiona R. Martin & Jonathon Hutchinson The Conversation 17 September 2015

Controversial cyberbullying law passes

Nicholas Jones New Zealand Herald 30 June 2015

What is #Gamergate and why are women being threatened about video games?

Eliana Dockterman Time Magazine 16 October 2014

Involving the police is not the way to teach trolls a lesson

Robert Sharp New Statesman 31 July 2012

The internet’s two-sided freedom

Charles Arthur Guardian 15 June 2012

This defamation bill is no friend of freedom

Luke Samuel spiked 10 May 2012

Are there limits to free speech?

Debating Europe 10 May 2012

You Have the Right to Offend Me

Danielle S. McLaughlin Huffington Post 5 April 2012

Free speech is not absolute

P R Kumaraswamy Daily Pioneer 28 January 2012

Silencing sectarianism: football’s free speech wars

Kevin Rooney Independent 6 October 2011


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Twitter prepares curbs on hate speech

Financial Times 27 June 2012

Teen charged over comment on troops

Belfast Telegraph 12 March 2012

Woman charged with racist rant on tram

Telegraph 28 November 2011


The morality of the imagination

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 7 March 2015

The moral code of social media

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 17 November 2012

Are there limits to free speech?

Debating Europe 10 May 2012

Morality on social networks

Moral Maze BBC Radio 4 31 March 2012

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