Free speech is normally limited by dictatorial governments.
- They imprison, threaten, deport or kill dissidents.
- They take away their livelihood, put them in psychiatric hospitals, indoctrinate or “re-educate” them.
- They use propaganda.
- They prohibit opposition political parties, demonstrations, rallies and assemblies.
- They censor the media, kill or imprison journalists and create media-monopolies.
But also more democratic governments, although in general supportive of human rights, may decide that in some cases limits on the freedom of speech are justifiable for the protection of other rights, for example in cases such as
- Hate speech
- Holocaust denial
All these limitations are initiated by governments and usually imposed through force and/or law. There are, however, other types of limitations, taking place in a less obvious manner, covert, indirect and sometimes even when we are not aware of them. Many of these limits are not government limits. They are imposed by citizens on other citizens, or even by citizens on themselves. And I’m not thinking in the first instance of those types of group pressure that are just as obvious as state pressure, like religious fundamentalists scaring people into submission by acts of terror or other threats. This type of pressure, which I call citizen tyranny, is not covert or indirect. On the contrary. Its goal is maximum publicity, in order to maximize fear and submission.
What I’m thinking of here are cases such as these:
In the Netherlands, the former MP and critic of Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, was forced out of her home after her neighbors managed to convince a judge that the value of their property suffered from her presence. (As a public critic of Islam, she received death threats and was considered a likely target of terrorist attacks, hence the “house value problem”). After such events, people will obviously think twice before engaging in public debate, starting with but not ending with Hirsi Ali herself.
This is called a “chilling-effect“. Certain events lead to suppression of subsequent acts of speech because of the fear that the perceived possible consequences of the subsequent acts will be similar to the real consequences following the said events.
A chilling effect causes ripples in society: one event leads to limitations of speech in other, unrelated events; one person’s problems with speech cause other people, who have no connection with this person, to reconsider their speech acts. The word “to chill” means to freeze, to harden, to instill fear.
In the U.S., post 9-11, the media have often indulged in self-censorship, inspired by patriotism or rather by the fear of not being recognized as a patriot during the so-called war on terror. Solidarity with the government at war and the commander-in-chief, or the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic, appeasers, “useful idiots” or even open allies of the enemy, has turned many into uncritical supporters of the war. These people actually limited their own freedom of speech. They did not say what they wanted to say or thought they should say, for fear of appearing un-American. Something similar happened during the McCarthy era.
Political correctness can also lead to chilling effects. Certain words such as “nigger” should not be used. There’s a good example in the movie “The Human Stain”, based on the novel by Philip Roth, in which Anthony Hopkins plays a professor who is dismissed after calling some of his absent students “spooks”. It turns out that these students are African Americans and that the word “spook” doesn’t only mean “ghost”. (Ironically, the professor turns out to be of African American descent himself). Also, certain causes for certain events should not be mentioned (for example the fact that some of the problems of the African American community are not caused by racism). Etc.
Political correctness can also result from fear. In this era of growing Islamic fundamentalism in multicultural western societies, the fear of causing insult and moral outrage, of creating divisions in society, can lead to chilling effects.
Other causes of limitations on the freedom of speech
- Media monopolies (which do not only exist in dictatorial regimes) stifle independent and minority voices.
- Party financing systems can make it very hard for certain voices to be heard in political debate and can make some voices (i.e. donor voices) louder than they should be.
- The profit principle: media outlets only publish what they consider to be (possibly) profitable. This also stifles certain voices.