Freedom of speech

ROSES AND THORNS - Pia Roces Morato - The Philippine Star

Winston Churchill once said, “Some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.” By definition, freedom of speech is the right to express any opinion without censorship or restraint. It is the right of a person to express thoughts and ideas without interference or retaliation from the government and for us Filipinos, our Constitution guarantees our freedom of belief, expression and participation, being part of a democratic society.

Speech, however, is not without limits as there are forms of speech that can cause harm, as well as lying that results in a negative impact on a person’s image. In other words, and most especially with regard to public safety, freedom of speech has its limits. While it has been said that free speech is considered to be a public good that allows people to express their views and opinions that could lead to social advancement for the overall benefit of society, it could also be used to promote violence against other members and allow the spread of  misinformation.

In the same breath, it could also be used by powerful individuals to drown out other thoughts or voices that should be heard. Freedom of speech is a core pillar in our democratic system and protecting it is essential in a fair and equal society; however, not just any speech is considered free speech. In other words, the definition of free expression does not protect every kind of speech and like all fundamental rights, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and is subject to limitations accompanied by legal basis.

When speaking about such limitations, for one, it must be proportional in the context of which they are no stronger than needed in achieving their aim and they necessarily and genuinely fulfill the objectives of the general public, which are needed to protect the rights and freedoms of others. As a consequence, people who engage in criminalized forms of speech, such as hate speech, cannot defend themselves by relying on their right to freedom of expression.

In a democracy, people are allowed to speak freely and express opinions about government – how they would like to be governed – and throughout a government’s term, an ongoing two-way communication is essential all across the board. In order for members of society to make meaningful decisions about how they want society to function, they in turn need access to truthful and accurate information, which can only be obtained if people feel they are safe enough to share issues that affect their communities.

The end goal is to accomplish a win-win situation where everyone’s right to free speech is safeguarded from abuse and, at the same time, upholding accountability in order to address issues. In the long term, we all want society to become better for everyone and in the era of digital transformation, hate speech and trolling can create a hostile digital environment where people are constantly being harassed or threatened by people who don’t have any reason to hate them.

On the other hand, when freedom of speech is being attacked, it sends the wrong signal that telling the truth can put you in danger. The laws that have been put in place are there in order to safeguard our freedom of speech; however, when incitement, defamation, fraud, obscenity, fighting words or threats come into effect, legitimately speaking, the same law restricts those who violate it.

When in doubt, it doesn’t hurt to remember the rule – “If you can’t say nothing nice, don’t say nothing at all.” Nevertheless, freedom of speech is a powerful tool that enables people to use their influence to make change and decisions for themselves and their fellow citizens through proper dialogue and education.

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