When the English Parliament enshrined Freedom of Speech in the 1689 Bill of Rights, it did so to ensure that all shades of political opinion were given voice. In 1791 the First Amendment to the US Constitution did the same. And in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly followed suit – passing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that includes Freedom of Expression.
Biographer Evelyn Hall paraphrased the thinking of 18th century French philosopher Voltaire on the subject, as follows: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
The basic concept of Freedom of Speech has been articulated and debated by philosophers from Socrates onwards. Without fail, the fundamental and underlying principle has been that this freedom is necessary for the betterment and enlightenment of mankind.
Yet there are laws in every country that seemingly work in direct opposition to these hugely aspirational principles. Laws against libel, slander, hate speech, insurrection and intolerance – just to name a few.
We also have less rigid social boundaries that cut across the principle of free speech. Many people don’t like it when adults swear in front of children. In some cultures it’s deemed unacceptable to be openly critical of, or defiant towards, senior family members or political leaders.
Try walking into a New Zealand school and talking to the kids there about the virtues of P or crack cocaine, and see just how far you get. What price Freedom of Speech then?
While most people embrace the fundamental principles behind Freedom of Speech, there are a host of laws, rules and conventions governing its application.
The bottom line is: while most people widely accept and embrace at a macro level the fundamental principles behind Freedom of Speech, and the need to protect this freedom from the constant threat of erosion, at the micro level there are a host of laws, rules and conventions governing its application.
I suspect I’m not alone in being torn by the Paul Henry affair and the argument that criticisms of his comments are an affront to the tenets of Free Speech (check out this wonderful piece by Wallace Chapman). We’ve all seen how views vary hugely over whether he was funny or insulting, telling it like it is or laying on gratuitous insult for cheap laughs.
When I hear something being uttered I don’t immediately think of the 1689 Bill of Rights. Instead, I judge what I hear by how it fits in with the framework of laws, rules and conventions that govern me wherever I am right at that moment. If it’s Paul Henry using the C word in jest at a ‘meeja’ knees-up, I’ll laugh along with the audience. But if it’s Paul Henry using the C word at my daughter’s junior school nativity play, I’ll knock him down.
Freedom of Speech does not mean Free of Consequences. Because I live in a society where Freedom of Speech is valued, I might not get locked up for my views. But I know and expect that there will be other consequences based on the many rules and conventions of that society. Some of these consequences will be subtle and some not so subtle. Like being fired!
For people in the public eye, that means being acutely conscious of where you are and who you’re with – and that can be particularly difficult for performers surrounded at most times by close colleagues and adoring fans. For us PR practitioners it means having a very clear view of what laws, rules and conventions are at play in any given scenario, and to be able to make a quick and accurate decision on when they’ve been breached.
So with a great big hat-tip to the memory of Evelyn Hall, my mantra is: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it – as long as you say it somewhere appropriate.”