Just how much free speech can we afford?

Those defending the decision by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club to invite secessionist Andy Chan Ho-tin to advocate Hong Kong independence have an unconditional view to the right of free speech. But the right to free speech is a matter of degree and gradation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 9:48pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2018, 10:20pm

Okay, quote me John Stuart Mill, John Milton’s Areopagitica, and the US Constitution’s First Amendment on free speech. I do hope you read the originals first, rather than citing Wikipedia.

Those sources have led to the extreme contemporary view of free speech. If you restrict one view you don’t like or disagree with, their ideological progenies claim, you are on a slippery slope to regulating or banning speeches. There are no nuances and conditions for them. Bad consequences, so what? That’s the price you pay for free speech. If you censor a single speech, sooner or later, they will come and cut out your tongue.

It’s an unconditional, absolutist view, one widely shared among Hong Kong’s opposition, the pan-democrats and their supporters. It’s the same argument they used to defend the Foreign Correspondents’ Club inviting secessionist Andy Chan Ho-tin to advocate Hong Kong independence.

Whether or not such people practise what they preach is another question. I have lost count of how many times such freedom-loving people have called on me to quit, shut up, or move to the mainland, and demand my bosses sack me.

There is nothing wrong in principle to regulate or even ban some speeches, even for societies where free speech is legally protected. The state, the law, civil society and its community standards all place varying and different restrictions on speech. Sometimes they are justified, sometimes not. But the principle of moderate and reasonable restriction is perfectly valid. It’s unconditional free speech that needs to be debated and justified.

Free speech is not binary, as if you either have it or you lose it. It’s a matter of degree and gradation. Some societies have more of it; some less. No society has ever had unconditional free speech.

Let’s cite an example: property rights. Other than the right to life, it is as near to being unconditional in a capitalist-democratic system as any right. But even so, the state may reclaim private land under the doctrine of eminent domain, impose capital control and raise taxes; private interests may also compel sales. (We know all about that in Hong Kong.)

But just because such instances happen doesn’t necessarily weaken property rights, though it could. It all depends. In the same way, just because we restrict some speeches doesn’t necessarily undermine free speech. We may reasonably decide a speech like Chan’s is more detrimental to society than if it were banned. What – I can’t even think that?