What Price Free Speech?

In wake of the attack on Charlie Hebdo there has been a significant cry from the media about Free Speech and Freedom if the Press. Naturally there has been a confusion of the terms, and one notes that it is hard for the press to be entirely objective when reporting on matters that affect them. That is not of itself to say that the reporting is wrong, simply to hang out to Question mark that we should always ask ourselves when reading anything.

Free Speech

Freedom of Speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas using one’s body and property to anyone who is willing to receive them. It is a right normally held by the citizens of a democracy, and less likely to be held or upheld for citizens of totalitarian regimes.

Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the press or freedom of the media is the freedom of communication and expression through mediums including various electronic media and published materials. While such freedom implies the absence of interference from an overreaching state, its preservation may be sought through constitutional or other legal protections.

The value of Free Speech is that each person has a voice and that voice may be heard, or unheard on the basis of people willingness to speak and willingness to listen.

A Free Press is indeed a cornerstone of open Government it that it provides information to citizens without the need for the government to approve of what we are being told.

There is no doubt that these are good things. The question remains are they good always and without limitation.

Limitations to Free Speech

We accept as a society that there are limitations to Free Speech. Public decency has a sense of respect, and although those boundaries are being challenged all the time, at any given time there are boundaries beyond which you should not go. Blasphemy once a capital offence, is not variously tolerated, permitted or even promoted. There is of course a segment of our community that would rather people did not engage in blasphemy, however by and large the feeling is that it is not the task of the western state to punish those who do.

We also recognize with free speech is the right not to listen. People have the right not to watch certain programs, the right to attend or refrain from attending various events including religious ceremonies. We don’t have an inalienable right to tell lies, to slander or libel people and we recognize that there are times and places where we do not have the right to stand up and say whatever we like.

Limitations to Freedom of the Press

There are some natural limitations to the Freedom of the Press. The sorts of boundaries that apply to freedom of speech may well be seen as relevant to the freedom of the press. There are other places where such limitations to freedom may be recognized, such as in the delivery of the national budget where the treasurer may well brief and provide briefing papers of the press, who are not free to publish until the embargo is lifted following the delivery of the budget in parliament. Journalists may well have access to information re matters of national or operational security where it may be reasonable for the release of that information to be embargoed.

In a free and open society these limitations will be minimal, where as in a totalitarian regime they may well be more imposed, or indeed at the worst the press may be managed as a department of the state.

Media Management as a Profession

There is no doubt that Press Secretaries and Media Managers abound these days in the corridors of power around the western world. This seen as an effective way for the press to have access to the information they need, however one suspects at times the press is being managed, just as surely as the media endeavors to manage public opinion. This often dissolves into a power play which is not the purpose of government or a free press.

Indeed the realization of the power of a free press may well have within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Charlie Hebdo

Charlie Hebdo (the ‘H’ is pretty silent) is a French satirical weekly magazine, featuring cartoons, reports, polemics, and jokes. Irreverent and stridently non-conformist in tone, the publication describes itself as strongly anti-racist and left-wing, publishing articles on the extreme right, religion, politics, culture, etc. In general the stance on any religious seems to have been loosely negative to indifferent, which reflects much of what is perceived as a contemporary European position.

Charlie Hebdo has printed numbers of cartoons and articles highly critical of Christian, Catholic, Jewish and Islamic positions of faith. Do any of us have the right to be offended and outraged? The answer of course is yes we do. Do we have the right to express that outrage?  The answer of course is yes we do. Does that give any of us the right  to take up arms an kill people? The answer of course is no we don’t.


A lot of this does come down to respect. Respect for people, respect for people who hold another view, respect of the rights f people to express another view. Sometimes I think there is a reasonable argument to suggest that in the vitriol of debate some of that respect has been absent in much of the Press, and in that sense I am in no way singling out Charlie Hebdo.

We need a kinder an more charitable world. That is not achieved by understanding freedom of the press as being unaccountable journalism, nor by those in power forgetting the needs of those who have none, now by arming the downtrodden to become a new oppressor.

It happens when one by one we decide in our own heart we will do better.


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