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Freedom of expression: the philosophical underpinnings

  • Date Submitted: 12/11/2012 07:15 PM
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Freedom of expression: the philosophical underpinnings


Various arguments have been advanced justifying the existence of a right to freedom of expression over the last 150 years. Foremost amongst these have been the arguments from truth, self-fulfilment and democracy (see Schauer 1980; Barendt 1985, ch 1). The argument from truth is famously associated with John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty of 1859. Mill argued that the pursuit of truth was of overriding importance for the development of society and the best way to arrive at the truth is to allow freedom of discussion and debate (see Mill 1980; Schauer 1980, ch 2; Barendt 1985, pp 10-14).(7)



The argument from self-fulfilment asserts that freedom both to impart and receive ideas and arguments is a vital part of each individual’s right to self-development and fulfilment. People will only be able to maximise their potential as human beings if they are free to express and have expressed to them, ideas, beliefs and arguments (Schauer 1980 ch 4; Barendt 1985 pp 14 – 20; Scanlon 1977).(8)



Perhaps the most accessible and powerful argument is that from democracy. In its historical origins it is particularly associated with Alexander Meiklejohn. (Meiklejohn 1961;1965) He argued that in order for citizens in a democracy to be able effectively to exercise their democratic responsibilities they must have free access to information and arguments about politicians and their policies. Furthermore it is only the freedom to criticise government that makes it effectively accountable to the electorate.



It is the argument from democracy that has found most favour in the courts in the USA under the First Amendment (see for example New York Times v Sullivan 376 US 254 (1964)), in the case law of the ECHR and in the UK (see for example Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd [1993] AC 534). Lord Steyn in R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Simms [2000] 2 AC 115 at p 126 put it thus:...

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