Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

2019-01-24T20:06:53.000Z Honest Cash

Regarding free speech, my previous post on Honest Cash was about freedom of expression and censorship focusing on J.S. Mill's arguments. In that post, I had mentioned Mill's Harm Principle and how a hate speech could be argued around the principle. In this post, I would like to make reference to Holocaust denial in the context of freedom of expression. The reason why I wanted to write about is a news that I saw last week, which was about a former bishop losing a case against German conviction under Holocaust denial legislation.

Free speech: an absolute right or not?

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”

What we understand from J.S. Mill's statement is that it is essential to have an environment where the opinions are exchanged freely without silencing anyone. It is essential for the function of democracy and human rights.

But what happens when one's right to free speech silences the other?

In the context of hate speech, we can always argue that a discriminatory opinion, which always offends or one part, in most cases prevents the offended side to have the same right - right to free speech - with the propagator due to the fear of the consequences she would face. So, even though the offender has the right to free speech, in most cases she cannot speak up and stays involuntarily silent which hinders the exchange of opinions freely. We see it mostly in the hate speech cases.

As a result, we can argue that freedom of expression is not an absolute - but fundamental - right and those restrictions on free speech based on certain justified reasons are a necessary condition to ensure the fundamental human rights while maintaining the democracy as well.

Free speech and Holocaust denial 

Many countries including Germany have laws that criminalize genocide denial and/or Holocaust denial under hate speech or political extremism. While there are critiques against the law since it restricts the free speech, there are also arguments that justify the restriction. The political situation in Germany is a good one to mention.

According to the Federal Republic of Germany, the freedom including freedom of expression can be abused in order to destabilize the democratic order. The opinion was a result of the non-criminalized hate speech which led to political extremism and the rise of the Nazi Party during the Weimar Republic. Therefore, Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany transferred the certain rights to protect the democratic order whenever there is a threat to democracy. Since Germany sees the Holocaust denial as a treat to public order and to the democracy, it is quite understandable its justification on the restriction of free speech in certain circumstances.

Surely, there are some counter arguments claiming that such restriction puts the state above the individual in its own interest. I will not argue those as I believe that freedom of expression is a topic whose boundaries are vague and that we cannot talk about a universal scope since there are different circumstances to be taken into account. Nevertheless, while I believe free speech is necessary for democracy and human rights, it can also harm both in certain circumstances. In the latter cases, if the state decides to restrict the right to speech, it is more important in what form to do that without getting a benefit of the situation against its citizens. I am not quite sure if there is such a state though.

Let me know in the comments what you think about the Genocide /Holocaust Denial law. Do you agree with German law in this specific example of the bishop?


RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @nandibear

The Coddling of the American Mind: In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like

The Atlantic

by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt

Septeber 2015 Issue


Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

The new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion or debate.

Attempts to shield students from words, ideas, and people that might cause them emotional discomfort are bad for the students. They are bad for the workplace, which will be mired in unending litigation if student expectations of safety are carried forward. And they are bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship. When the ideas, values, and speech of the other side are seen not just as wrong but as willfully aggressive toward innocent victims, it is hard to imagine the kind of mutual respect, negotiation, and compromise that are needed to make politics a positive-sum game.

Rather than trying to protect students from words and ideas that they will inevitably encounter, colleges should do all they can to equip students to thrive in a world full of words and ideas that they cannot control.

Read entire article:

RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @nsarules

A couple more points. One, free speech itself is a fundametnal human right. The idea that human rights can harm human rights is clearly contradictory nonsense.

Second, as far as the so called holocaust goes the official numbers are war propaganda and that's why they cannot be challenged.

The very fact that discussion of that piece of war propaganda has been madde illegal by totalitarian governemtns like the german government and others tells us that we are not dealing with historical facts.

RE: RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @calisi

Let me tell you two things my friend: 1. You just repeated me that free speech is fundemantal right. It makes me think again that you did not get the article.

2. If you call today’s German government totalitarian, I just suggest you to check out what totalitarian government means and its real examples.

RE: RE: RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @nsarules

Right back at you my friend. If you don't understand that restrictions on free speech like the one imposed by the german government are totalitarian by definition then your whole argument is just circular nonsense.

Indeed you refer to free speech as 'fundamental right' and then go on to argue that such right should be violated. Obviously you don't actually think that free speech is a fundamental right. So I am 'repeating' to you something you don't actually believe in, while I do.

And let me also repeat, the german government is an accomplice of war crimes commited by the american government, including the current invasion of palestine and running the concentration camp that israel runs there. And yet, there are totalitarian anti-free-speech laws to 'protect' the jews. Disgusting.

RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @nsarules

Free speech can never harm human rights. On the other hand the german governmetn is a criminal organization responsible for the murders of tens of millions of people. The fact that the german government pretend to be the good guys is laughable self parody.

It should be taken into account that the german government is an accomplice of the american government and and accomplice of the israeli government. All those government are gross criminals who violate humans rights worldwide.

It seems to me that the author of this article has very little respect for actual human rights.

RE: RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @calisi

Well, I believe you did not get the article as your comment just blames specific governments with no counter argument for what I was underlying - whole article was for generating discussion. Also the German government mentioned in the article is the current government, not the one during the Third Reich. I am not sure if you meant the latter one..

Lastly contrary you, I will not tell any assumptions about you and what you respect.

RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @calisi

It is great to see all your opinions. I would like to correct something about the specific bishop case. I think it was misunderstood. The bishop was not censored. He could tell what he thought freely. Instead, he had to face a consequence for what he said. It is totally different since he had the right to free speech and he used that. Bearing a consequence does not mean that he was silenced or was not given the right to speak about. Therefore, I could say that there was a free marketplace of ideas, with a consequence at the end since we are all accountables for what we say. At least that is what I believe.

Lastly, I am a member of vulnerable community in my home country. Our personal experiences shape our opinions. The fact that I still have to choose many times to stay silent against hate speech makes me think more about the topic and its scope. Especially, the fact that I cannot use my right to free speech even though I have, while the other person can enjoy using his right freely. And it is not my free choice not to use it. So, here comes the self determination topic..

RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @Logan

RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @trumanity

Your post does a fine job of informing the reader. Opinions are the belief that something is true. Proving something to be fact or truth, should always be allowed to face challenges or be defended by counter-arguments. These should be rights that we protect and no amount of coercion or violence (threat of imprisonment or other injuries) should be entertained in reaction to any opinion. It is incompatible with the idea of equality if one person or group is favored with the power to claim that an opinion expressed by another equates to an injury without showing that such an expression results in a loss of a material or physical nature.

If we sway from this in applying the definition of hate speech, then we are delving in the realm of potential crimes, rather than actual crimes. Soon we infringe on the right to hold an opinion without even expressing it. Consider whether the Venezuelan people might claim they are harmed by the expression of an opinion that Juan Guano is a president of their country? Going further, might one accept - as the world did in post-bombing of Libya - the wide-scale targetting of persons that were found to possess a photograph of Gadhafi? Some condone such actions under an extended definition of hate crime. The argument being that such possession (without expressing anything in public) is proof that potentially, that someone intends to harm that society? Ideas like fakenews, truth, even fact - are really all opinions with varying degrees of support, and are therefore always subject to a challenge. This is a cornerstone of freedom, imo.

RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @matewo

It is bad to censor someone's views, regardless of the subject. My point is, if people did not know about the bishops believes, they would not be able to judge them. The goal is to educate people so they can make their own opinion of the subject, by having access to full/uncut speech of that particular person.

@adrianbarwicki you claim that lies and prejudices can flourish on the free market of ideas. I wouldn't say so. It may however be true in short run, e.g. antivaxers movement, but the long term consequences - dying children, cannot be denied. Thus, as a result, wrong opinion, or maybe not wrong but different, is always tested by the free market, and the most trueish wins.

Some views, or in particular definitions are not clear and vary between cultures. Best example - Crimea - as vied on google maps from different countries, is a part of Russia or Ukraine?

I think that people should have access to every sources so they can decide on their own. For example, if I read definition of Islam on Wikipedia it varies between English and Arabic version, and I would like to know both definitions but I don't speak Arabic… My point is, to progress as humankind, people cannot be deprived of access to something because of censorship. It makes it worse once someone discovers a whole another side of the story. Knowing it in the first place, makes censorship unnecessary at all.

RE: Can free speech ever harm democracy and human rights?

by @adrianbarwicki

Open societies somehow need to preserve freedom of expression while protecting vulnerable groups from hate campaigns that rob them of their equal right to live in safety and live as they believe.

The free marketplace of ideas can allow lies and prejudices to flourish, such as denial of genocides, fake election news, and misrepresented history.

Censorship expression that only offends people’s feelings, even if it insults their deeply held beliefs versus denial of proven facts and broadcast of false events? It's a thin line.

In my opinion, the supreme court made the right decision by censoring the words of the priest that was denying holocaust.