Is freedom of speech meaningful if there is no freedom from consequences?



How is freedom of speech meaningful if you have to always bear consequences of it like it would be in a society without freedom of speech?

In a democratic and free country you'll be punished if you communicate hate speech or anything that someone may deem offensive , similarly in a dictatorship you'll be punished if your speech offends the dictatorship.

Of course the punishment would be harsher and criteria of punishable speech would be different in a dictatorship , but that goes for all the laws in a dictatorship and not something specific to prohibition of free speech.

So essentially even in a free country you can only communicate something that is not offensive to someone, even then anyone can go legal and may prove that what you deemed innocent was actually offensive.

This is the same idea as in a dictatorship with only change in laws that tell whats offensive so whats the point of calling it free speech?


Posted 2016-12-18T06:03:45.563

Reputation: 213

4I've not the time to really write up a response here, but discussions on freedom of speech really frustrate me. Let me present you an analogy: is freedom of bodily movement meaningful if there is no freedom from consequences? How is freedom of bodily movement meaningful if you have to always bear consequences of it? In a democratic and free country you'll be punished if you move your body in such a way to hurt someone else, similarly in a dictatorship you'll be punished if your body movements damage the dictatorship. – commando – 2016-12-18T06:12:41.283

@commando so basically in a legal sense these freedom of xyz terms have no proper definitions nor one can define the difference in presence and absence of it. – Allahjane – 2016-12-18T06:23:20.640

2Generally, freedom of speech refers to freedom from legal consequence to speech, not freedom from all possible consequences. If your speech would have no consequences whatsoever, why bother saying anything at all? – None – 2016-12-18T10:05:07.090

Keep in mind just because we have freedom to do something doesn't exactly mean it's always a good/ wise idea - or that we should do it. For instance shouting "hi, jack!" in an airport (which may be interpreted wrongly) or "Fire" in a crowded theater. – Jesse Cohoon – 2016-12-20T14:25:48.570

@JesseCohoon so what I wanted to say is , does free speech has anything that defines it to be something specific with freedom like in a free country vs something in a dictatorship – Allahjane – 2016-12-20T15:08:15.337



It is easier if we just look at a less ambitious subset of absolute freedom of speech: absolute freedom to publicly defend a certain thesis.

Because this would exclude a lot of obnoxious stuff which is prohibited everywhere, including countries arguably maintaining a high respect for free speech, e.g. the US (contrary to Europe).

Still, even this subset is problematic, because of libel laws. And libel laws are something dictators always abuse first, for example Hitler endlessly sued newspapers for libel before he was in power.

But formally we can differentiate the US from a dictatorship, because at least any opinion, which is not about single individuals, can legally be publicly defended. You can, for example, legally deny the holocaust.

For European democracies this is much more difficult, probably impossible.

For example, what is the difference between criminalizing Armenian genocide denial (France) or criminalizing the claim that the Armenian genocide happened (which counts as the crime of “insulting Turkishness”, article 301 of the Turkish penal code)?

Formally there is no difference. Of course, I believe that the Armenian genocide happened and so that Turkey's law is horrible, while I am relaxed about France's law. But if I argue that way, I leave the meta-level which tries to be neutral of the validity and worth of an opinion.


Posted 2016-12-18T06:03:45.563

Reputation: 3 455

So would say that Turkey is denying free speech by laws against accepting Armenian genocide or would you say France is denying free speech by making Holocaust denial illegal? In both cases you are offending some group so consequences are expected but so is true for anything you say, everything you say can offend someone and if they prove it in a court you'll have to face consequences. So what exactly makes free speech more free in say usa than in north Korea – Allahjane – 2016-12-25T11:21:23.987

1@Allahjane there is no formal difference between Turkey's and France's restrictions on speech. But the USA is formally different from North Korea because it does not restrict defending general factual claims/opinions. Yes, there are restrictions on freedom of speech in the USA (incitement to crimes is sometimes illegal), but no restrictions on freedom of opinion. Contrary to North Korea (and also European democracies) there is no legal restriction on defending any general factual claim in the USA, e.g. it is completely legal to deny the Holocaust there. – viuser – 2016-12-26T02:49:11.163

of course but that just means usa has fewer restrictions on what can be said than North Korea its not like nobody can Sue you for your speech in usa just because you declare it as opinion rather than a claim, you may also be sued by government representatives can't you. Does that mean North Korea has free speech too just with more limitations on what can be said and not? – Allahjane – 2016-12-27T21:27:33.507

Or are you saying that stance of the government rather than society defines whether free speech exists or not. Like if constitution grants you right to say something that would be very offensive to majority of people of the country would you say that country has free speech because constitution allowed it or not because society doesn't approve of it – Allahjane – 2016-12-27T21:31:45.507


Freedom of speech is specifically the freedom from legal action in response to your speech. It is not a freedom from all consequences. In fact, in realistic implementations, such as those in the USA, freedom of speech is limited. There are things which can draw legal action by being said (libel, threats of violence, etc.).

Freedom of speech is important in a government which prides itself on following rules. Many governments explicitly put more power in the rules than in the people enforcing the rules. The logic is simple: people may not be trusted, but rules are rules.

If a government is unable to punish you for your speech because they officially have "free speech," then they are forced to find other reasons/ways to punish you. This process is much harder than simply throwing you in jail for your speech directly, so it provides a key check for these governments.

Cort Ammon

Posted 2016-12-18T06:03:45.563

Reputation: 16 681

So, where is the formal (!) difference between the “free speech” in a democracy and a dictatorship? For example, what is the formal difference between §3 of Hitler's 1934 Treachery Act: “Whoever makes or spreads, an untrue or grossly distorted factual claim, which is suitable to harm the welfare of the Reich or a Land [...] [will be punished] with imprisonment of not less than three months.” and the laws against “fake news” which are proposed around the world, for example in Germany, too?

– viuser – 2016-12-25T08:51:47.993