Freedom of Speech, Thought, and Expression

Photo Credit: Breitbart

I apologize for the here and gone post from yesterday about politics, my friends. Apparently it caused an uproar for a few who found it offensive and personally insulting (which in no way was ever my intention or purpose). I removed the post to try and ‘keep the peace.’

I am broken and worn out from defending my political views from personal attacks. I just don’t get it. But I must say, it proved my point that discussing politics, whether with friends, family, or the general public, is incredibly difficult in this day and age.

It got me thinking about free speech or freedom of expression. One of the greatest things about America is the right to speak or write our minds, our opinions, our thoughts, our views, and more regardless of how other people feel about it. We all have the right to express ourselves. (This is going to be a long one, so bear with me.)


To clarify definitions, freedom of speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas. The term freedom of expression is sometimes used synonymously, but includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.

We also have the right to freedom of thought. Freedom of thought (also called the freedom of conscience or ideas) is the freedom of an individual to hold or consider a fact, viewpoint, or thought, independent of others’ viewpoints.

It is different from and not to be confused with the concept of freedom of speech or expression. Instead, ‘freedom of thought’ is the derivative of and thus is closely linked to other liberties: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression. It is a very important concept in the western world and nearly all democratic constitutions protect these freedoms.

So what’s the point of all these ‘freedoms’?

In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which is legally binding on member states of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, freedom of thought is listed under Article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The Human Rights Committee states that this, “distinguishes the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief from the freedom to manifest religion or belief. It does not permit any limitations whatsoever on the freedom of thought and conscience or on the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice. These freedoms are protected unconditionally.” Similarly, Article 19 of the UDHR guarantees that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference…”

The right to freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and recognized in international human rights law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR). Article 19 of the ICCPR states that

“[e]veryone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “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”.

Article 19 goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “[f]or respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “[f]or the protection of national security or of public order (order public), or of public health or morals.”

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) argued that without human freedom there can be no progress in science, law or politics, which according to Mill required free discussion of opinion. Mill’s On Liberty, published in 1859 became a classic defense of the right to freedom of expression. Mill argued that truth drives out falsity, therefore the free expression of ideas, true or false, should not be feared. Truth is not stable or fixed, but evolves with time. Mill argued that much of what we once considered true has turned out false. Therefore views should not be prohibited for their apparent falsity.

Mill also argued that free discussion is necessary to prevent the “deep slumber of a decided opinion”. Discussion would drive the onwards march of truth and by considering false views the basis of true views could be re-affirmed.Furthermore, Mill argued that an opinion only carries intrinsic value to the owner of that opinion, thus silencing the expression of that opinion is an injustice to a basic human right. For Mill, the only instance in which speech can be justifiably suppressed is in order to prevent harm from a clear and direct threat. Neither economic or moral implications, nor the speakers own well-being would justify suppression of speech.

In Evelyn Beatrice Hall‘s biography of Voltaire, she coined the following phrase to illustrate Voltaire’s beliefs: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Hall’s quote is frequently cited to describe the principal of freedom of speech.

In the 20th Century Noam Chomsky states that: “If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Stalin and Hitler, for example, were dictators in favor of freedom of speech for views they liked only. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.” How can we have a balanced political world without hearing both sides? You can’t.

Freedom of Expression and Democracy

The notion of freedom of expression is intimately linked to political debate and the concept of democracy. The norms on limiting freedom of expression mean that public debate may not be completely suppressed even in times of emergency.

One of the most notable proponents of the link between freedom of speech and democracy is Alexander Meiklejohn. He argues that the concept of democracy is that of self-government by the people. For such a system to work an informed electorate is necessary. In order to be appropriately knowledgeable, there must be no constraints on the free flow of information and ideas. According to Meiklejohn, democracy will not be true to its essential ideal if those in power are able to manipulate the electorate by withholding information and stifling criticism. Meiklejohn acknowledges that the desire to manipulate opinion can stem from the motive of seeking to benefit society. However, he argues, choosing manipulation negates, in its means, the democratic ideal.

Suppression of these ‘freedoms’

The obvious difficulty in censoring thought is that it is impossible to know with certainty what the other person is thinking, and harder to regulate it. However, freedom of expression can be limited through censorship, arrests, book burning, or propaganda, and this tends to discourage freedom of thought.

Examples of effective campaigns against freedom of expression are the Soviet suppression of genetics research in favor of a theory known as Lysenkoism, the book burning campaigns of Nazi Germany, the Slovakian law to sentence anyone who denies Armenian genocide up to 5 years in prison, the radical anti-intellectualism enforced in Cambodia under Pol Pot, the strict limits on freedom of expression imposed by the Communist governments of the Peoples Republic of China and Cuba or by right wing authoritarian dictatorships such as those of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Francisco Franco in Spain.

Freedom of expression can also be stifled without institutional interference when majority views become so widely accepted, or enforced, that the entire culture represses dissenting views. For this reason, some condemn political correctness as a form of limiting freedom of thought. Although political correctness aims to give minority views equal representation, the majority view itself can be politically correct; for example, college student Max Karson was arrested following the Virginia Tech shootings for politically incorrect comments that authorities saw as “sympathetic to the killer.” Karson’s arrest raised important questions regarding freedom of thought and whether or not it applies in times of tragedy.

But keep in mind hate speech is not part of freedom of speech.

My Thoughts

This discourse with my friends devolved because it was about primarly LGBT issues. I won’t post a huge thought here about this, other than to say I won’t be censored just because someone else disagrees or doesn’t like my opinion.

Instead, I want to direct you to another blog – Matthew Phelps, a distinguished and honored United States Marine who also happens to be gay. He is author of the blog, Work in Progress. He posted specifically about this issue as he has had the same problem. He ‘read my mind’ and I couldn’t say it any better what he has already said.

Here’s the direct link to the post:

I encourage you to read his post, even read his entire blog. You’ll truly be moved by his journey.

And I hope that this will help you think twice before attacking someone for their beliefs and opinions when they are different than your own. Or help you defend someone when you see it happening to them. Remember, America is all about freedom.

 Source for history: Wikipedia

4 thoughts on “Freedom of Speech, Thought, and Expression

  1. Too many people believe in “freedom” of speech, thought, religion, etc. as long as others share the same beliefs. The intolerant climate we live in doesn’t bode well for the future of civilization.

    Did you remove the like buttons on your blog? Or is this some of the same problem I’ve heard from other bloggers recently? (Like buttons not appearing where they used to, that is)


    1. An excellent freedom and I’m lucky that I get to do both! I’ll admit it’s challenging to go home after a full day of work and compose a blog post for the next day. Some nights, I’m too exhausted. I love the freedom that WordPress gives in scheduling blog posts so when I write it at night, I can schedule it to post the next day.


    2. I totally agree! It’s such a polarized political environment anymore, I always wonder if things will ever change. I have to have hope that someday it will.

      I fixed the buttons, by the way! I switched my blog to a self-hosted blog and I’m still working out the kinks. Thanks for letting me know they were missing!


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