Face off: Is freedom of speech necessary in a functional society?


Each week, two of our readers debate a hot topic in a parliamentary-style debate that doesn’t necessarily reflect their personal viewpoint. This week …

Joanne Ma |

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In order for society to be functional, as in, maximise progress and development while providing for one’s life, liberty, and happiness, democracy has proven itself to be the best candidate. It’s not perfect—no manmade system could be—but it’s the best we’ve got, and without freedom of speech there is no democracy. For a self-governing system to function, the electorate must be informed. The only way to achieve this is through removing constraints on the public flow of knowledge and information.

It’s true that this system may turn out to be inefficient in times of urgency. Leaders with wholly good intentions for the state’s preservation may manipulate information and opinions without the goal being to deprive their citizens of rights. This leader ideally would have no selfish tendencies whatsoever and the keen ability to discern the best possible outcome for the nation, but this is simply impossible—even the best of leaders cannot foresee every possible factor, perspective, or outcome of their actions.

As such, the most feasible and effective option is an atmosphere of discussion and discourse, with factional interests keeping each others in check. On this system of checks, Thomas I. Emerson has called free speech a “safety valve” that lets off steam, leading to a stable but flexible society. A good balance between the majority and the minority, cleavage and consensus, with methods of governance that lead to representation of all voices, is only possible with freedom of speech.

The opposition may argue that democracy is humane but not necessary for a functional society; that other forms of governance are more efficient and practical. This is untrue and shortsighted. Policymaking may be efficient in the short term, but historically, governments that disregarded human rights have always bred dissent and turmoil instead of harnessing these opposing views to serve their vital social function in “offsetting or ameliorating (the) normal process of bureaucratic decay” as Emerson wrote.

Iris Lee, 17, Hong Kong International School

Face off: Should we talk about politics in schools?

Many cases regarding free speech can in fact be detrimental or even counter-intuitive in a functional society.

One such aspect is the prevalence of hate speech. As social media takes over young teenager’s lives, the way we communicate has become far more volatile than before and more susceptible to hate speech. Young people can blackmail, harass, use derogatory language or bully other peers and that’s a clear harm posed to society. Whether it’s racist slurs, threatening personal messages, or even deliberately harmful photos or videos that people can put out there, too much free speech can have a harmful impact on young people’s mental health and well-being.

For instance, we could be seriously affecting young people’s self-esteem and their performance at school, as well as their lives at home. Especially in a city like Hong Kong, where many of us suffer from social pressures and mental health issues, hate speech and harassment is a detriment to society.

If freedom of speech makes it easier for people to bully one another, incite violence and fear, then maybe we should think about some limitations of free speech.

Speaking of social media, it’s so much easier now to disseminate false information or “fake news”, or spread untrue rumours that can frighten or wreak havoc on a functional society. It’s worrying because we now live in an age where we don’t know what’s true or false and excess of free speech has undermined the credibility of media. As a result, we allow online users to dominate the agenda to brainwash people and manipulate the truth.

Free speech has certainly got its advantages but there are many times where it can hurt young people and backfire onto online communities. That’s why I believe that we should look into some rules and regulations

Karl Lam, 17, German Swiss International School

Edited by Ingrid Piper