Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, states article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights1. Liberal thinkers asserted2, and it has been generally accepted, that we as human beings are free to speak our minds, publish opinions, criticize others, question ideas, make fun, discuss taboo topics and debate openly and freely, without barriers raised by tradition, politics or sacred taboos. Such things have been integral to human development3. To restrict people from doing these things is to deny human dignity.
But as with all facets of human behaviour, there are limits, for the purposes of balancing freedom of expression with other rights. For example, database administrators can't publish passwords that would allow the general public to read others' personal data, military staff cannot decide to publish nuclear launch codes4 or other official secrets, and, it "does not mean that one can scream Fire! in a crowded theater!"5. You can't use it to harass or engage in other antisocial behaviour that infringes on others' ability to live a free life.
Free expression is often unduly opposed for reasons of political idealism or religion4. Through censorship, oppression and blasphemy laws, both camps engage in attempts to prevent criticism and limit the availability of others' opinions. If they can't get what they want legally, violence is often the result. Reporters Without Borders' statistics on press freedom shows a 14% decrease between 2013 and 20156, taking it to a 12-year low6. With nastier politics on the rise and well-funded religious organisations lobbying for restoring or strengthening blasphemy laws, things may still get worse.
Human Rights have had a powerful positive effect on the world, ratcheting humanity away from barbarism, political oppression, gender inequality and religious prejudice. Humanity has felt the need for Human Rights for a long time. The derivation of ethics from religious codes has been inadequate as either a source of governance or as a guide to personal conduct: too many old and archaic rules lead to needless segregation, sectarianism, suffering and pain, especially of minorities. Even the well-loved Golden Rule (treat others as you wish to be treated) fails as thugs indulge in dog-eat-dog competiton. Many have built secular (non-religious) frameworks. Immanuel Kant theorized on the categorical imperative7; but this required everyone spend an inordinate amount of time indulging in long-term strategic thinking when making any moral choices. John Stuart Mill in the 18th century constructed his under-appreciated utilitarian ethic8. But the most successful work in this area is by far the Enlightenment's push for human rights.
Human rights solves some of the "deliberation overhead" issues by stipulating some things you cannot deprive people of. One of the earliest Western legal systems that declares the existence of Human rights was created by Hugo Grotius in his book Der Jure Belli ac Pacis in the 17th century CE, based on reason and humanitarianism - and made famous for not referring to divinity9. The wheels had been set in motion in the Enlightenment, as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau deliberated upon secular sources of morals in France in order to prevent the Christian abuses of the Dark Ages from occurring again10 and it was this that brought HR to the fore in the West11.
It is now widely acknowledged that "the source of human rights is man's moral nature"12 and the international Vienna Declaration states that "all human rights derive from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person"13. Governments, institutions and individuals are now held to account across the world for failing to respect basic human rights.
“Voice and autonomy, as parts of freedom of agency and freedom of well-being, are integral to human development. The ability to deliberate [and] participate in public debates ... is fundamental to human development for everyone.”
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights14 Article 19
“It is worth spelling out why free expression is the bedrock of all liberties. Free speech is the best defence against bad government. Politicians who err (that is, all of them) should be subjected to unfettered criticism.”
The Economist (2016)4
“Freedom of speech is a vital bridge between openness and equality, not a trade-off between them.”
Freespeech is not an unlimited right and it can't be used to the detriment of others' rights. For example, it does not override a right to privacy - you cannot freely announce others' private statements without facing HR-compliant consequences and it's not "against freedom of speech" to enable those consequences if the 'speech' in question is itself damaging to human rights. You can't use it to harass or engage in other antisocial behaviour that infringes on others' ability to live a free life. A much-used instructional comment is that freedom of speech "does not mean that one can scream Fire! in a crowded theater!"5.
“Exceptions should be rare. Child pornography should be banned, since its production involves harm to children. States need to keep some things secret: free speech does not mean the right to publish nuclear launch codes.”
The Economist (2016)4
Because the impulse to control is strong in certain situations, it is often the case that organisations and communities try to limit free speech for their own benefit, but without understanding the reasons for free speech in the first place. "The idea has spread that people and groups have a right not to be offended"4 which can only result in the policing of what people say about others, about religion or even about political beliefs. These are not good times for open debate.
In Russia under Putin, a temporary trend towards free speech after the collapse of the Soviet Union has been halted and reversed - "all the main television-news outlets are now controlled by the state or by Mr Putin's cronies" and "journalists who ask awkward questions" are murdered.4
|Press Freedom (2013)16|
|Pos.||Lower is better16|
|Press Freedom (2013)16|
|Pos.||Higher is worse16|
The freedom to investigate, publish information, and have access to others' opinion is a fundamental part of today's information-driven world, and is linked with Freedom of Speech and Good Governance. Scores on the Press Freedom Index are calculated according to indicators including pluralism - the degree to which opinions are represented in the media, media independence of authorities, self-censorship, legislation, transparency and the infrastructure that supports news and information, and, the level of violence against journalists which includes lengths of imprisonments. The index "does not take direct account of the kind of political system but it is clear that democracies provide better protection for the freedom to produce and circulate accurate news and information than countries where human rights are flouted". The rankings are used as one of the datasets of the Social and Moral Development Index17
It must be noted that press freedom is not an indicator of press quality and the press itself can be abusive; the UK suffers in particular from a popular brand of nasty reporting that infuses several of its newspapers who are particularly prone to running destructive and often untrue campaigns against victims. The Press Freedom Index notes that "the index should in no way be taken as an indicator of the quality of the media in the countries concerned".
Free speech, freedom of discussion, freedom of debate, freedom of criticism and inquiry are valued aspects of modern society. "Blasphemy laws are an anachronism" because of the damage they do to good governance - they are "widely abused. Banning words or arguments which one group finds offensive does not lead to social harmony. On the contrary, it gives everyone an incentive to take offence - a fact that opportunistic politicians with ethnic-based support are quick to exploit". But those concepts are disregarded by some religious groups who instead wish to maintain a firm hold on converts. Christian and Islamic laws against blasphemy, when at their most extreme, are equal in severity and strictness. Neil Kressel in his book on religious extremism lists "prohibition against blasphemy" as one of the three most dangerous manifestations of organized religion18. Not surprisingly, both Christianity and Islam have held that conversion attempts, and converting away from the religion, are punishable crimes. That has often meant punishment by death. In the Christian Bible the punishment for blasphemy is stoning (Lev. 24:16), and in the Islamic Qur'an Sura 4:48 says that Allah does not forgive blasphemers, although thankfully most Christians in developed countries no longer observe the harsher instructions from the Bible. Many Islamic institutions consider blasphemy and apostasy (the leaving of Islam) to be the same thing, therefore the punishment for apostasy, which is death, can be given to blasphemers. Much of the advance of intellectual freedom and human rights has been gained in opposition to religious institutions and communities.
“Islamic fundamentalists insist that tolerance is not for them, that non-Muslims must not be allowed to proselytize in their societies, that Islam's followers may not exit the 'true' religion, and that blasphemy is to be punished severely. As it happens, Western Christian civilization insisted on much the same for most of its first two millennia. St. Augustine, citing his favorite text ('Compel them to come in,' Luke 14:16-23), advocated death for heretics. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, heretics 'by right... can be put to death and despoiled of their possessions... even if they do not corrupt others, for they are blasphemers against God.”
"Are Human Rights Universal?" by Thomas M. Franck (2001)19
In a democratic world where moral values and fairness are endorsed as part of just society, it is important that the state does not support one religion and enforce its values on those who don't consent to that religion. In other words; there are two ways you can approach blasphemy. The first is that you treat all religions fairly, and you make it illegal to blaspheme against any religion. The second is that you abolish the concept of blasphemy. The problem with the first method is that there are hundreds of religion with all kinds of absurd, irrational and heartfelt issues that would be deemed "blasphemous". If it was possible to enforce it would lead to massive & impractical restrictions on everyone. Everyone would always be blaspheming against some facet of some religion all the time. Even if we made it so that intent to blaspheme was a requirement for conviction, it would not be right in a free society to enforce blasphemy laws for hundreds of religions upon the populace. Clearly, abolition of blasphemy laws is the only sensible and moral path.
For more, see: