Implications of Censorship of Free Speech
Freedom of speech is universally recognized as a pillar of democracy – it is considered as an integral element of a free and fair political system, which defines a free society. In fact, its protection is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and in Article 10 of the European Convection of Human Rights (Warburton 1). However, the level of acknowledgement of this right varies across the world – it is held in highest regard in the West and almost entirely disregarded in countries like North Korea and Eretria, with other countries falling in between. Whether allowed for the purpose of democracy and a free society, or censored for whatever reasons, freedom of speech can either way have serious implications on a society, certain members of the society or an individual.
Censorship of free speech refers to an action taken to prevent a member or members of a society from articulating their ideas, from expressing themselves or from spreading information (Müller 225).Speech is not restricted to verbal communication; rather, it refers to any means and modes of conveying information and ideas from one party to another. Speech encapsulates word of mouth, writing, gestures, art, videos, images, blogs and posts on the web, among others (Warburton 4). Censorship, on the other hand, refers to actions taken to either suppress or block information or ideas, with the intention of stopping it from reaching the intended audience (Warburton 6). Information and ideas are commonly censored if they are deemed to be contrary to the morals of the society in question, if they contain elements of blasphemy, if they demote patriotism or if they are obscene. Other times, censorship is intended to suppress dissent and the opposition and, hence, keep members of a regime in power, or help them get away with activities that would be legally or socially deemed improper, for example, corruption. Other than governments and organizations, individuals also can practice self-censorship in order to avoid potential punishment, to protect another party or for any other reason. It is difficult to take a position on the issue of censorship as its implications on a society or an individual can be positive, negative or both.
On the positive side, free speech, if not censored, can cause harm to the society, particular members of a society or an individual. Some of the reasons why censorship would be justified are: when there is need to protect children; when the stability of the government would be threatened; when traditional values would be undermined; when it would offend part or whole of the society; or, when the information is misinformation.
Censorship protects children from information and ideas that would harm their moral growth and development. In most societies, the responsibility of seeing to it that children grow and develop morally lies with the parents, and, in some cases, close members of the society. Parents are instinctively and morally obliged to oversee their children’s growth and development, and to make sure that it happens in a manner that is socially acceptable, as well as for their children’s own good. Besides their children’s education, careers and behavior, parents also shape their children’s religious, moral and political views. If children are therefore exposed to free speech from sources other than either their parents or trusted members of the society, the information or idea is likely to undermine their parents’ efforts and, consequently, damage their moral development. This is because, according to Etzioni, most information and ideas usually made accessible by lack of censorship contain pornographic material, violence, extremism, drug abuse among others; and such information and ideas are known to be causes of social decay (39).
However, the censorship of materials for the purpose of protecting children is usually criticized for hijacking free speech, among other reasons. When materials that would be beneficial to adults are censored because they are perceived as being potentially harmful to children, then adults’ right to free speech is infringed upon. Besides, it is difficult to draw the line between an adult and a child in terms of both the age and the mental development of the individual. There is a possibility of protecting children from materials that they are mentally developed enough to learn from rather than to be damaged by. There is also the question of how to tell what type of materials to protect children from. According to Etzioni, contrary to common thought, the materials from which efforts have been made to protect children are not the ones that would cause the most harm to children (44). It therefore follows that preventing children from consuming content that is thought to be potentially harmful to them denies adults access to materials: the materials could be the same materials that children are being protected from, other materials that end up being censored by the action of protecting children, or both.
A case however when it is arguably necessary to deliberately deny adults freedom of speech, in terms of both its production and consumption, is when it is thought that the freedom would pose a threat to government stability. Certain forms of censorship are necessary for the government to consolidate its authority and, hence, maintain a stable society. Unless both the government and the society it governs are stable, the society would disintegrate and spiral into chaos. Hence, it is necessary to censor information and ideas that would potentially polarize the society and, as a result, stir up trouble.
The deployment of censorship by some governments and regimes is, ironically, intended to keep them in power rather than maintain social stability (as cited in King et al. 339).Such governments and regimes want their people to believe that the so-intended censorship is meant to facilitate government stability and, hence the stability of the society as a whole. The intension however is usually to crack on dissent in order to stay in power. The denial of free speech not only prevents the entry of people with alternative ideas into leadership, but it also offers those in power the liberty to rule how they like, and unfairly benefit themselves at the expense of the society as a whole. The usual implication is that the society usually ends up deteriorated either socially, economically or both ways. The censorship is also likely to make the regime lose its legitimacy and hence face collapse: King et al argues that creating room for criticism may actually help keep the regime in power as it legitimizes the state (340).
There are times however when governments or other authorities censor information for the purpose of safeguarding traditional values from being eroded by information from outside cultures. In this case, censorship is usually implemented if external information and ideas either attack local traditional values, or are likely to be adopted by a section or certain sections of the society. Information and ideas containing foreign culture and ways of life enter a society through the media, movies, books, the internet and other forms of entertainment. Their impact on the local society however tends to extend further than the entertainment they are originally intended to be. According to Rauschenberger, the dominance of movies and television programming made in the United States continue to fuel cultural erosion not just in Latin America and Africa but in the European Union as well (5).
Moral codes and beliefs vary across societies all over the world; and these values dictate how members of a particular society behave towards and interact with each other. For example, moral codes, beliefs and ways of life are very different in North Africa and the Middle East compared to the West. A society views its values as an essential part of its identity. As a consequence, a potential threat to or an attack on the society’s basic values tends to translate into a personal attack. And there are times when these external attacks on local traditional values have led to serious retaliations. For instance, Al Qaeda, a terrorist group, claimed that one of the reasons as to why they attacked the United States was their perceived intrusion of American culture into Islamic nations (Rauschenberger 4). Whether or not there is an element of truth in this claim, the point is that people are very protective of their traditional values and their will go to great lengths to protect them. A number of these retaliations end up harming innocent people.
Nonetheless, the use of censorship for the reason of protecting a society’s traditional values can encourage the continuation of traditions and cultures that need changing. An example is how women are viewed in North African, Middle Eastern and some other Islamic countries. Generally speaking, women are not treated as equals to men – they are expected to stay at home doing house chores and taking care of the family. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive (Yusuf 504). The treatment of women in Western societies is opposite to that in Middle Eastern society. Information and ideas originating in the West depict women as equals to men, and free to live their lives the way they want. Censorship in these countries means that such portrayals of how women are treated in ways that are counter traditional to Islamic countries remain inaccessible to women. Women in these countries are therefore likely to think that their treatment in their countries is the norm. Thus, their oppression continues without them complaining as censorship denies them knowledge of their rights and freedoms. While it is worth noting that some women in these societies have received western education and have actually started feminist movements both within their countries and from outside their countries, their fight for Arab women’s right still face a form of censorship that is being eclipsed from the media and not being taken seriously by conservative Muslims (Yusuf 509).
Having looked at the implications of censorship of freedom of speech in terms of protecting children, maintaining government stability, and defending traditional values, it appears that it is not easy to take a firm position as regards the issue of censorship. This is because, as has been argued, the act of censoring particular pieces of information and ideas does itself lead to the censoring of information and ideas that should not be censored, as a side effect. Other times authorities hijack necessary censorship to further their own interests. There are cases, however, when censorship turns out to be more harmful than productive to societies and individuals, especially in terms of the promotion of democracy, the sharing of knowledge and technology and the expression of personal identity. The liberal thought is that in such cases, free speech should be allowed as the benefits far outweigh the potential damage.
Democracy is one of the concepts that are most closely associated with free speech. Democratic societies allow people to freely express their opinions and share their ideas with others. These opinions and ideas are allowed to be heard and put into consideration by the rest of the society, which, in turn, makes its decisions regarding the state on the basis of those opinions and ideas. Freedom of speech therefore allows all members of the society – from the privileged down to the underprivileged – to be heard and to access information. The implication of censorship in this case is that it results in oligarchy rather than a democracy, a system in which a small privileged elite group maintain power and rule in a way that favors themselves rather than the society as a whole. An important example is the case of North Korea where free speech is so suppressed that almost the entire population has no idea of what life is like outside their country (par. 2). The implication of the censorship of information in North Korea with intention of ensuring the security of the regime is that it has left the country so underdeveloped that the government has been compelled to allow limited free speech to spur economic growth (par. 7).
A criticism of the allowance of freedom of speech on the grounds of being necessary for democracy is that it allows for the expression of ideas that are totally not relevant to the democratic process. If people take advance of the freedom of speech necessitated by the democratic process to spread information and ideas that may cause harm or offence to the society, social order can be disrupted. It follows that, according to Gutwirth, while freedom of speech is essential and hence integral to the democratic process, it should be made sure that it does not leave room for the expression of ideas too freely as it may disintegrate the society (42). However, in view of the North Korean case, it should be evident the benefits of freedom of speech for the purpose of democracy far outweigh the downside highlighted.
Another liberal view on censorship is that it curbs the spread of truths and, for that reason, hinders the advancement of the human civilization in regions where speech is censored. Such scientific truths as advancement in medicine, physics and geology as well as the invention of new technologies tend to emerge out of particular regions of the world; so does such social ideas as gender and sexuality; race and identity; and human rights and freedoms. All these truths are necessary for a world that improves and respects human lives. If these truths are restricted from certain societies, then those societies remain stuck with old ideas, knowledge and technologies. Such societies face many threats, an example being death from a disease whose control and cure is available outside those societies.
Censorship of freedom of speech, as well as the lack of it, can have significant implications on a society, a section of the society or an individual. Censorship protects children from information and ideas that would be harmful to their upbringing; helps the government maintain its stability; prevents the erosion of a society’s values and beliefs; and curbs the flow of wrong information. However, if censorship for the highlighted reasons does not result in the censoring of information and ideas that shouldn’t be censored due to poor filtration if any, it is usually hijacked, the result of which is the oppression of the society by its regime. Censorship also discourages democracy and, as a consequence, creates a system in which power is concentrated among an elite few who benefit themselves at the expense of the society. Censorship also prevents the spread of scientific information and social ideas that are necessary for the advancement of human civilization. Such information and ideas include advancement in medicine, technology and human rights. Societies that lack access to such information and ideas end up being left behind as the rest of humanity becomes more civilized. As has also been seen, censorship can also encourage extremism, which may in turn end up causing harm to societies from which free speech emanates. Thus, censorship has implications – directly, indirectly or both ways – on the society and individuals and sometimes the implications can serious.
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