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Freedom is Never Free by Tanisha Chandrasekaran (Issue #1)

Freedom of speech. Freedom is something we all desire, but how much freedom do we really need?

Freedom of speech has a universal definition. It is defined as the “freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” by the UN. However, people’s understanding of it does differ across the world. Is there such a thing as absolute freedom of speech? Free speech could be defined as a theory according to which, through language, writing, or pictures, people must have the freedom to hold and convey ideas on any platform and on a variety of subjects, from politics to religion, economics to history, without fear of consequence or punishment. Despite this vague and broad concept, freedom of speech is rarely considered as a right that grants protection to everything that can be uttered. For example, US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Holmes, proclaimed long ago that “the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic”. This sentence expresses one of the most important aspects of free speech thinking and ruling globally; freedom of speech is limited, it does not cover all kinds of speech.

This raises questions about how far to protect and how far to restrict speech. Someone who says something prohibited is not just saying something seen as uncomfortable, but something that is illegal. They break the law, and could face civil liability or criminal prosecution.

So, distinguishing free and unprotected speech means drawing a line between speech that can be punished and speech that may not be punished, between speech that can be used to bring someone to prison or speech that can take their money away, between speech that can be excluded from public discourse and that which cannot. It is not a matter of identifying good or bad ideas, respectful or impolite speech, but rather of distinguishing lawful from unlawful speech, with the related good or bad consequences.

Today in the 21st Century, it is not only a matter of free speech in the physical world, but free speech online should also be considered. The Internet allows anyone to share their voice and perspective around the world, as well as hear others’ speech. It has greater potential than ordinary media. The internet is far more widespread and gives people the capability to interact. Internet speech can facilitate action much more effectively than traditional media. In this way it is an intensification of the problems that come with free speech. Using free speech adversely by spreading fake news, expressing hate speech, etc. can have a significant negative impact on online users. It is in view of this that digital citizens like us should use our freedom of speech properly.

Many communities, big and small, lack freedom of speech today. We should be grateful for our privileges and how we are free to express ourselves, within communities such as our school. We have the power to create change by speaking out and expressing ourselves, and so it is our duty to respect it. Freedom of speech is not a license to abuse, but a responsibility for us to use.

This post was edited by Darius Fleischmann.

Produced by students from GEMS World Academy Singapore. Contact the team: