Freedom of Speech and the Demands for Order: How far should freedom of speech be allowed?

by Manuel B. Quintal, Esq.

The limiting line between the individual’s freedom of speech, in fact all other individual freedoms, on one hand, and government rules for order in the state, on the other hand, varies from time to time and in different places. Nevertheless, all of us recognize that citizens have the right to free speech, and the government has the duty to make laws to maintain order in the country. Where lies the balance between the right of people and the duty of government depends on endemic circumstances.

Man is born free…” declared Jean Jacques Rousseau, a noted French philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century. John Locke, that English political writer from whom, among others, the Founding Fathers of the United States drew their ideas for the Constitution, wrote that “liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others…” Amendment number 1 of the U.S. Constitution proclaims that Congress shall not pass any law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Philippine Constitution of 1987, the fundamental law in effect now, similarly states in Article III, Section 4, that “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” These ideas are repeated in many other constitutions or organic laws of democratic countries, as well as countries that claim to be democratic.

“No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.” These ideas are repeated in many other constitutions or organic laws of democratic countries, as well as countries that claim to be democratic.”

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights [UDHR] (Article 19) guarantees the right to freedom of expression, and declares that: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes the right to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This declaration is not law and not directly binding to signatory states. To many, however, it is regarded as having acquired legal force as customary international law.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to freedom of expression in terms very similar to those found at Article 19 of the UDHR: “1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of opinion. 2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art or through any other media of his choice.

The political philosophies or theories as written may appear similar, but the manner they are implemented come in different hues.

“This right makes it possible for the people to examine the conduct of government officials and makes the government aware of and, hopefully, become responsive to the will of the people.”

The freedom of expression is a right that is inherent in man. It is inalienable, as political theorists say, and as those written declarations state. It is the foundation of a democratic and free society. This right makes it possible for the people to examine the conduct of government officials and makes the government aware of and, hopefully, become responsive to the will of the people. In a democratic government like ours, this right makes it possible to have a free exchange of ideas. It is how people influence the direction of government in between elections.

Let it be emphasized that that freedom was not meant to be absolute. The Founding Fathers and the authors of all other fundamental laws did not intend or could have not intended the freedoms to be absolute. Absolute freedom does not exist, except in the confines of the human mind. All men who choose to live within a society of men must of necessity give up some of his natural freedoms. Societal limitations to individual freedoms are created upon joining the community of men. The government, which in a democratic government presumably represents all, and duty bound to promote the common good, has to adopt and impose limitations on individual freedoms. But to what extent such freedom of expression may be limited? Citizens demand almost unlimited freedom of speech while governments want more limitations for the sake of order in the country. How far should the freedom of speech be allowed?

Sometime in March 2011, the United States Supreme Court, speaking through Chief Justice John J. Roberts, Jr., in a case involving a small religious group known as Westboro Baptist Church, that had picketed funerals involving soldiers and homosexuals, stated: “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of joy and sorrow, and –as it did here – inflict great pain. On the fact before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation, we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. That choice required that we shield Westboro from tort liability for its picketing in this case”

“While the apparent reluctance of the government to confront the violence-prone protesters may tend to avoid violence and destruction of property, and maintain peace, it clearly encourages and promotes disorder. Too often, destruction of property, thievery, and other criminal acts result.”

To what extent should the government promote and maintain order in society without unjustifiably limiting the individual freedoms? In the current pandemic and demonstrations that often result to violence and other criminal actions, government can and should do more to protect the freedoms of the majority who are not involved in the mass gathering. To be free is to be free from “violence from others.” The Constitution guarantees the right of the people “to peaceably assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances”, not otherwise. While the apparent reluctance of the government to confront the violence-prone protesters may tend to avoid violence and destruction of property, and maintain peace, it clearly encourages and promotes disorder. Too often, destruction of property, thievery, and other criminal acts result.

It is bad when government accumulates too much power that limits individual freedoms. It is worst when individuals who have no respect for the individual freedoms and properties of others, the majority of the people, in fact, are free to roam the streets and go unprosecuted.

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