Freedom of speech: What do you mean?

At school we recited the mantra that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us. Looking back, it’s an odd and misplaced mantra. Often, it’s the words that hurt us most deeply. (Although a good beating is, I expect, also rather painful.)

Of late, particularly in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, people have been talking about the importance of freedom of speech. But what does that mean? And is it really something that people truly want?

Currently there is legislation in the UK that prevents people from the likes of slander (spoken word), libel (written word) and defamation of character. If I slag you off through untruths to the extent that it impacts upon your ability to earn or your reputation, then you can sue me and claim damages. This very legislation is a limitation on my freedom of speech. I am prevented by law from saying what the hell I like about you.

And we also have the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act, part of which reads:

A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, is guilty of an offence if [s]he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred.

Again, I’m not allowed to say, or write, what the hell I like. (Generally, when people talk about freedom of speech, they include the written word as well as the spoken word.)

My view is that there is a place in society for both of the above pieces of legislation existing. If newspapers were free to write what the hell they liked without any recourse, that would be bad, right? (Possibly a poor example.) And similarly, if someone leafleted a community alerting them to a “local paedophile” who was, in fact, nothing of the sort, then that protagonist should, in my view, be held accountable for their actions.

My view is that the wider legislation covering race and religion is also valid. (Arguably it should be widened to other groups that might be subjected to such hatred, or genericised to talk of a wider concept of “groups of people”.)

But even if you only subscribe to the former of the two pieces of legislation being necessary, you are supporting a society in which speech is limited – one in which unbounded freedom of speech is not desired. So the question becomes not whether or not you support freedom of speech; but instead, where should the line be drawn between what speech is deemed to be legal and what is not?

Saying that you desire freedom of speech, but only within the bounds of what is legal, is not acceptable; or rather, it should not be termed “freedom of speech”. Our own legislation has been built up over time according to the social makeup of our society. It has been built up in different ways in different countries, and therefore it cannot be used in defining something that is free.

Or maybe I’m missing the point. Do people want unbounded freedom of speech? Do they want people to be able to say and write what they want to about whomever they want without any fear of recourse? Because that’s not a society that I’d be comfortable with.