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Posted September 5, 2011
Freedom of speech is considered one of the most fundamental human freedoms, especially in modern liberal democracies. It has become de facto THE litmus test of overall freedom that citizens of any society enjoy. And yet, the notion that we should have this freedom is relatively recent. The modern understanding of this freedom can more or less be traced to John Stewart Mill's "On Liberty," although there have been acknowledgements of the importance of freedom of speech that precede that work.
This very short introduction covers some of those historical developments, but most of the book is dedicated to the contemporary controversies that surround various interpretations and limitations of the freedom of speech. In particular, the book deals with the famous quote of Oliver Wendell Holmes that freedom of speech does not entail falsely shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre and similar instances where speech can lead to physical or psychological harm. The book gives other examples of where our abstract notions of freedom of speech may collide with reality. The author is very good at appreciating the fact that the real world is very different from an academic discussion seminar, and many practical considerations oftentimes need to be taken into the account when deciding what should and should not be protected as free speech.
I find this book to be operating from a slight (perhaps unconscious) bias in its treatment of blasphemy and pornography. It seems to imply that religious and anti-religious "speech" (however one defines it) is really not categorically different from other forms of speech and ideas, while on the other hand the author is willing to concede that there is something categorically different when it comes to pornography. While I in fact more or less agree with the conclusions or the general attitude of the author to how these two categories of speech should be handled, I think that religion is a fundamentally separate category of speech and needs to be handled as such. For if this were not the case, if religion were just yet another set of ideas amongst many, then all the laws that have been enacted to ensure the "separation of church and state" would be very grievous violations of the freedom of speech. And this, I am sure, neither the author nor most people this day would find a desirable way to interpret freedom of speech.
The last chapter deals with the intrinsic conflict between freedom of speech and the modern notion of copyright. Lime in most other discussions of the limitations of free speech that are presented in this book, it is quite clear that there are significant differences of opinion of what constitutes fair use of copyrighted material, across the world and within any given country. The arrival of the internet has only complicated these matters further. This could be a subject of a book in its own right, but this very short introduction does a fairly good job of at least bringing up all the main issues.
Based on all the controversies that have transpired over the years when the free speech is concerned, it is virtually certain that this will continue to be a much discussed topic for the foreseeable future. This little introduction, however, will continue to be relevant as an accessible overview of this fascinating topic for years to come. It is probably one of the most informative such introductions that are currently available.