Effect of Democratic Practices on Free Speech

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Free speech and democracy are two major buzzwords in American politics, but how exactly do they interact? In this lesson, we'll talk about the ways that democratic practices can both encourage and limit free speech.

The Freedom of Speech

There are 27 pieces of legislation that have been deemed so important that they were actually added to the US Constitution, the most politically sacred document in the nation. We have 27 Constitutional amendments, but do you know what is number one? The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of speech, which in political terms means the right of citizens to express their views without being censored by the government. This is one of the most important rights in the United States, but also one of the most controversial. Does a democracy demand absolutely unlimited rights to free speech, or can these ideas be contradictory? It may be the First Amendment, but it's also one of the first debates our Founding Fathers left unresolved.

Free Speech and Democracy

Okay, so in the United States we hear a lot about the importance of free speech and the importance of democracy, but how do these two ideas interact? In the 17th and 18th centuries, the ability of governments to censor their citizens was seen as being detrimental to creating a representative government. The citizens could not make their voices heard. So, intellectuals began positing that for a democracy to be truly functional, the citizens had to have the freedom of speech. Limiting speech limited the functionality of a government based on letting the people have a political voice.

One of the most outspoken proponents of free speech was John Stuart Mill, a 19th century English economist and philosopher. According to Mill, every person has a fundamental, human right to be heard. Any silencing of people's right to speech is oppressive. In fact, Mill states that if every person on Earth except one shares an opinion, that single person still has a right to speak his/her mind. That being said, Mill does recognize that we don't live in a perfect world, and in fact creating an ordered and civil society requires some regulation.

John Stuart Mill

How Democracies Increase Free Speech

So, there is a complex relationship between democracy and free speech. Let's look at a few concrete examples to see exactly how the practice of democracy can impact the citizens' rights. Most of the time, democratic practices are seen as promoting free speech. This argument is easy to understand. Democratic practices, like voting, are expressions of individual political will. By voting, you are expressing your opinion and taking part in the government. Since voting is seen as the fundamental system of a democracy, it needs to be respected and its integrity needs to be maintained. That means that the government cannot tell you how to vote, and by extension cannot forbid you from sharing your opinions. Democratic practices both encourage free speech and rely on free speech because they require the ability of people to engage in political ideas. If the people hold the political power, they must be able to debate, argue, and plead their cases. Just try to picture a democracy without free speech. How would you know what to vote for? Could you feel confident that you understood the issues if the people who opposed them were being censored?

Confident voting requires free speech

How Democracies Limit Free Speech

Of course, nothing is quite that simple. In a Utopian community, everyone could have free speech all the time, but we don't live in Utopia. We live in reality. The reality of creating a government, even a democratic one, naturally limits free speech.

Most scholars recognize that politically, there really is no such thing as absolutely unlimited speech because the main purpose of a government is to create and maintain order. Order requires the sacrifice of some freedoms.

Think of it this way if everyone talks at once, no one can be heard. Speech must be limited at times so that some sense of order can prevail. This is the difference between democracy and anarchy. In an anarchy, there is no government, no system in which some people are given power over others. In a democracy, the people do elect to give power to certain individuals, which naturally privileges some voices over others. So, in its own roundabout way, democratic practices like voting actually limit truly free speech. What makes this acceptable is that we, the people, are voluntarily choosing to sacrifice some of our freedom of speech so that we can share an ordered and secure society.

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