Much has been said about freedom of expression in the recent years, particularly online where freedom of expression reigns supreme and anyone who wishes to debate a particular topic being discussed should do so rationally. But that’s all theory. In practice, debates descend down to outright name calling and furious exchange of words. While certainly entertaining, it does little to advance our understanding or opinions on the subject of discussion.
All commotion and nonsense seem to prevail in the garb of freedom of expression. This leads to the vital question – does freedom of expression mean no restrictions on the way we express ourselves, or is there a requirement for the state to provide an environment wherein we can freely express ourselves?
This conundrum has been labelled as the defensive view on freedom of speech versus the empowering view on the freedom of speech. The defensive approach to speech rights originates from the works of classical liberal scholars like John Locke and John Stuart Mill to neo-liberals such as Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, etc. Liberty, according to this view, is defined as the absence of coercion by government and by others. The right of the government is restricted to maintaining the individuals’ private spaces so they can pursue their goals with minimal intervention by the state or by others and exercise their freedom to express themselves. They believed that the decisions made by the plurality of individuals guided by their free-will and market forces are superior to decisions made by the government because the “state has no legitimate reason to interfere with individual decision-makers”. The role of the state is relegated to ensuring the conditions necessary to meet this competitive market economy are met. They extended this idea, coupled with their belief in the mechanisms of laissez-faire, to the freedom of speech to having a clear demarcation between the state and the private sphere when it comes to “prohibiting government interference with expression and relying on the public’s self-restraint in matters of non-governmental censorship could secure freedom of speech”. It is argued that “freedom of speech is best served by market mechanisms that are identified with a private sphere of public opinion formation”. However, they do not take into account the ability of competitive markets to coerce and curb the freedom of speech. It is inconsequential as long as the coercion is not perpetrated by the state.
An opposing view to that of the defensive approach to freedom of speech is the empowering approach that draws its motivation for free speech from Participatory Democratic Theory, as espoused by writers like T.H. Green, John Dewey, Benjamin Barber, etc. They viewed the citizen and the government as not separate from each other but theoretically coterminous and that it was the right of the state to not only protect its citizens from coercion but also provide the necessary conditions that would enable the citizens to “collectively examine, make and enact social decisions to benefit the common good ”. Communication is assigned a central role in this process in the sense that it acts as a facilitator of social enquiry and mediation that “generate the political and social knowledge necessary to legitimise self-governance”. The empowering approach is more pragmatic than the defensive approach in the sense that it recognises that coercion can emanate from vested interests apart from the state. Thus, the government here plays a much more crucial role than the defensive approach in the sense that it recognizes liberty as the “opportunity to act” and develops and maintains the procedures, processes and institutions that provide this opportunity. This ensures that all communicative spaces are free from coercive forces of any kind thereby enabling legitimate public decision-making.
Alexander Meiklejohn once said that the purpose of free speech was not that “not everyone gets to speak but that everything worth saying gets said”. While the defensive approach ensures that everyone gets to speak, it runs the risk that noteworthy points might drown in the noise. In such a scenario, the empowering approach is useful in the sense that the onus lies on the state to provide the right set of social conditions to ensure freedom of speech. However, this also means that the concept and practice of freedom of speech might become lopsided since the decision of what’s best for the public interest will be decided by the few and may not be representative of the best interest of the masses. What is essential, in such a scenario, is to strike a balance between the two approaches. A plausible solution would be to outline the parameters for public interest with respect to freedom of speech and decide on the merit of each parameter, which approach would suit best.