By Catalina Hurtado
In an elementary school setting in Singapore, I witnessed many talent shows and guest speakers. Despite taking place almost 6 years ago, a one-liner delivered by a History teacher has managed to stick in my mind to this very day – “You were given two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Although unsophisticated, I find that such a sentence stresses the importance of observation prior to judgement as we often speak without really listening. For this reason, I have noticed that I have frequently applied this teaching in many unlikely situations across my travels, especially in trying to grasp the complicated topic of freedom of expression. Is there no true limit to one’s expression? Who draws the line to the barriers of this so-called “freedom”? And, most importantly, the question that I want to explore – Is freedom of expression still a right and should it be regulated when it becomes disruptive?
I have seen the nuances of this topic take on various forms, almost shapeshifting with every culture that I get to know, be it understanding why people mysteriously disappeared in Pinochet’s Chile to witnessing the awkwardly placed, hand-sized Confederate flags around my Maryland neighborhood in 2015. Recently I am also “fresh off the boat” from Cuba where I lived for almost three years which, in itself, is a case study suitable for any philosophy class. In presenting my observations on today’s examples of freedom of expression, I do not wish to criticize any society nor to unnecessarily walk on controversial territory. Rather, in reading this article, I hope to encourage you to listen before speaking as you form your own opinion on what constitutes freedom of expression in an otherwise constricting world.
Freedom of speech, according to Yale professor Jack Balkin, “[a]llows ordinary people to participate freely in the spread of ideas and in the creation of meanings that, in turn, help constitute them as persons.” In other words, it is probably the most widespread and practiced right out there, especially in terms of communication. However, just as we have seen as we welcomed the new year with the spectacle in D.C, perhaps the expansive nature of this right should not be that all-encompassing. What distinguishes the screaming rioters spilling hateful rhetoric from the Black Lives Matter protestors that dominated the news in 2020? Both of these groups are rightfully and validly practicing their right of freedom of expression, aren’t they? Without going too into depth on government regulation and what characterizes human rights, I turn towards the text “Is there a right of freedom of expression?” written by Larry Alexander. In his conclusion, the law professor hones in on the importance of governments permitting degrees of freedom of expression as “ [t]he amount and types of freedom of expression that produce good consequences will vary with the form of government, the degree of political stability, the level of wealth, the state of technology, the general level of education, the culture, the structure of the news media and other media of expression and communication […]”. Likewise, too much regulation on the freedom of speech can also entail a moral predicament for governments, as “harmful expressions”are not easily identified and therefore cannot be easily suppressed and prosecuted (Alexander). Thus, to answer my initial question, perhaps freedom of speech should still be preserved as a right and should only be regulated when there is a general consensus that such expressions are deemed harmful. As such, as you look over your feed for the bountiful memes in light of the “Capitol Invasion”, take note of its implications and what it symbolizes for the future of freedom of speech in democracies.
For freedom of association, another form of this right, I turn towards Hong Kong. In a report by Amnesty International, they highlight the controversy of China’s implementation of the National Security Law, where “all individuals, institutions and organizations in Hong Kong would be prohibited from engaging in activities that endanger national security.” From a completely logical standpoint, it does make sense for the Chinese government to want to regulate and control any gathering of groups that could potentially pose a danger to this metropolis. However, what distinguishes Hong Kong from the recent D.C riots is a convincing and relatable purpose behind the pro-democracy movement. As explored by scholars Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, “[s]hared norms often provide the foundation for more (successful) formal institutional processes of regional integration.” In other words, freedom of association in modern Hong Kong should not be regulated, as their purpose of achieving democracy benefits from the validity of the universality of human rights. The only reason why freedom of association in Hong Kong has resulted in disruptive demonstrations is due to the fact that the Chinese government has infringed on the basic human rights of Hong Kongers for the sake of “national security.” On the other hand, the D.C riots’ own disruptive behavior is rooted in nothing more than in a shared dissatisfaction of an election result. Thus, the freedom to associate and the question of whether to regulate it is purely situational.
Freedom of expression, be it in the form of speech or association, is an incredibly rich topic with no clear answers. In retrospect, perhaps in writing about this universal right, one should consider human rights in its entirety and the underlying contradictions that it possesses as a field of study. But, as I have listened to countless news coverage on the two examples that I mentioned, I can honestly say that the need for regulating freedom of expression for people is a matter of how much importance the government gives to the right. Disruptive expressions or not, democratic governments or not, I find that ultimately an absence of a proper dialogue between governments and their constituents will only entail more harmful expressions in the future.
1. Balkin, J. M. (2004). Digital speech and democratic culture: A theory of freedom of expression for the information society. NyuL rev., 79, 1.
2. Alexander, L. (2005). Is there a right of freedom of expression?. Cambridge University Press.
4. Keck, M. E., & Sikkink, K. (1999). Transnational advocacy networks in international and regional politics. International social science journal, 51(159), 89-101.
Edited by Karolina Hajna
Artwork by Emma van de Nouweland