Freedom of Speech – Universal Human Right?

Defending freedom of speech in a Western environment invaded by normative moral relativism is an increasingly hazardous affair as many have found to their cost. Ronald Dworkin, a philosopher and legal scholar who died today was unequivocal about the importance of free speech.

Ronald Dworkin defended the idea that freedom of speech is a universal human right. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Philosopher and legal scholar Ronald Dworkin– 1931 – 2013 — who died today, 14 February, was a supporter of, and contributor to, Index on Censorship magazine. In this article from 1994, he put forward a passionate and forensic defence of free speech as a universal right:

“Is freedom of speech a universal human right? Or is it, after all, just one value among others, a value cherished by middle-class intellectuals in Western democracies, but one which other cultures, drawing on different traditions, might well reject as unsuitable for them, and which radical groups within those Western democracies might well challenge as no longer central even there?

“Index on Censorship was founded in the first conviction: that freedom of speech, along with the allied freedoms of conscience and religion, are fundamental human rights that the world community has a responsibility to guard. But that strong conviction is suddenly challenged not only by freedom’s oldest enemies — the despots and ruling thieves who fear it – but also by new enemies who claim to speak for justice not tyranny, and who point to other values we respect, including self-determination, equality, and freedom from racial hatred and prejudice, as reasons why the right of free speech should now be demoted to a much lower grade of urgency and importance.

“In part, this new hostility reflects reluctance to impose Western values on alien cultures. Free speech may be important within our own secular traditions, some critics say, but it would make no sense to graft it on to very different styles of life. We cannot reasonably ask peoples whose entire social structure and sense of national identity are based on the supreme authority of a particular religion to permit what they believe to be ridicule of that religion within their own borders.

“How can we expect people who are committed to a particular faith, as a value transcending all others, to tolerate its open desecration? John Stuart Mill’s argument On Liberty says that we should tolerate even the speech we hate because truth is most likely to emerge in a free intellectual combat from which no idea has been excluded. People with passionate religious convictions think they already know the truth, however, and they can hardly be expected to have more confidence in Mill’s doubtful epistemology than in their own bibles. Nor could Mill’s optimism justify, even to us, tolerating everything that those who believe free speech is a basic human right insist should be tolerated. Pornographic images hardly supply “ideas” to any marketplace of thought, and history gives us little reason for expecting racist speech to contribute to its own refutation. If freedom of speech is a basic right, this must be so not in virtue of instrumental arguments, like Mill’s, which suppose that liberty is important because of its consequences … When we compromise on freedom because we think our immediate goals more important, we are likely to find that the power to exploit the compromise is not in our own hands after all, but in those of fanatical priests armed with fatwas and fanatical moralists with their own brand of hate.”

  • This is an extract from an obituary published on the Index on Censorship website and based on an original article first published in Index on Censorship magazine in 1994, and reprinted in 2006.

    Index on Censorship has recently been captured by a UK lobby opposed to free speech and a free press, a development which basically undermines IoC’s original purpose and seriously devalues decades of good work. See this report for full details

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