The Debatable Right to Free Speech
(Human Rights Series Part 1)
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to… receive and impart information and ideas through any media.” Sounds completely reasonable, until you realise that the first item returned on a Google search ‘Did the holocaust happen?’ is ‘Top 10 reasons why the holocaust didn’t happen’ published on the anti-Semitic, hate speech website Stormfront.org. Is that an opinion which has a right to dissemination through any media and regardless of frontiers?
I find holocaust denial a very compelling case because it’s not just an aberrant opinion; it’s an opinion that makes very specific claims about historical reality. That the Nazis killed six million Jews is an undeniable fact, and to deny it is to make specific claims about reality. If even the most basic research shows that holocaust denial is demonstrably false, why bother to proscribe it? My argument is that even easily falsifiable facts may be more harmful that mere opinions. If you post an article about why you personally hate Jews, it’s obvious to any reader that it’s just your opinion. However, opinions become something a lot more dangerous when they distort facts to try and win converts. It’s facts rather than opinions that need protection sometimes.
Donald Trump told a great many lies in his presidential campaign. Not strongly worded opinions, or political doublespeak, but out and out lies. The most notorious of these lies was the promise to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it. If he merely expresses the opinion that the US government should make more effort to seal the border with Mexico, that’s his right. The problem is that he made appeal to actual real-world facts. He made a promise to do something which cannot actually be done. You can’t actually force another country to pay for your public works. But the lie is told, the seed is planted in people’s heads and the harm is done. The same might be said about the claims which were pushed by the Leave campaign in Britain.
I don’t really mean to get political, but these events do highlight the fact that increasing numbers of people are being duped by claims that could easily have been falsified. Fake news is the hot topic of the day, but it’s really just the extreme version of various forms of counterfactual and spurious claims which float freely around the internet. See the anti-vaccination movement for another example. My question is; what should be done about it? Should these sorts of falsehoods be allowed to survive?
I don’t have an answer. I just want to start the discussion. Maybe governments should start by banning fake news. Maybe politicians should be censured for making claims that are demonstrably false. Does the internet need some kind of watchdog? Or is it simply up to us to educate future generations so that they are less susceptible to BS? Let’s just hope it’s not too late by then.