Freedom of speech

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 18, 2018, from

1. Definitions

In discussions of free speech, ’speech’ is typically given a meaning that is both more and less inclusive than in ordinary usage. It includes written as well as spoken words and it may include nonverbal forms of communication such as pictures, symbols and gestures. That is why the phrase ’freedom of expression’ is sometimes preferred to ’freedom of speech’. On the other hand, certain forms of speech fall outside this privileged domain; despite involving speech, perjury and blackmail, for example, receive no privileged treatment.

The ’freedom’ that is most commonly of concern is legal freedom – the absence of legal restraints upon speech. But other sorts of freedom may also be at issue, for example freedom from inhibiting social pressures or economic threats, such as loss of trade or employment. Questions of free speech can also arise in matters such as the editorial policy of an academic journal or the purchasing policy of a library. The reality of people’s opportunities to air their views through the media is another important matter for free speech, particularly in contexts of economic inequality or government-controlled media and in relation to competitive speech such as political argument (see Freedom and liberty).

Freedom of speech is typically asserted as a ’right’, which therefore has a privileged moral and political status, and it has become a standard ingredient of constitutional bills of rights and declarations of human rights. The right to unfettered speech is most commonly claimed for those who wish to speak, but it may also be claimed for those who wish to hear and the right to hear what others wish to say may be no less important.

Analysts sometimes try to give content to freedom of speech as a right by dissecting the meanings of ’speech’ and ’freedom’, but philosophically it is impossible to divorce the proper content of the right from its justification. Only when we have considered why freedom of speech matters are we in a position to identify what sort of speech the right should encompass, what sort of freedom it should imply, and what sort of status that freedom should enjoy.

Citing this article:
Jones, Peter. Definitions. Freedom of speech, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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