Open Debate

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Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are fundamental principels in any democracy. The same is true for the secrecy of letters and inviolability of the home. In a democracy, people can meet anywhere and talk to anybody about anything. Freedom of speech, however, gives rise to some dilemmas.

Formal and material freedom of speech

There are two kinds of Free Speech in a democracy. Formal freedom of speech means that the government does not apply censorship. No one decides in advance what can be published and what cannot. One of the few exceptions concerns children, where the government may restrict movies and computer games to certain age groups, and ban child pornography.

Material freedom of speech means that even though no censorship exists, freedom of speech is not unlimited. In the public sphere, a person is always responsible for his or her utterances, and legislation can concretize this responsibility. There may be (and are) laws against slander, racism, and blasphemy. These laws are meant to safeguard individuals and minority groups against verbal attacks, campaigns of slander, hate speeches, and insults, which would otherwise be hard to defend against.

Defamation and slander

Traditions regarding legislation concerning defamation and slander vary greatly from country to country. Some countries have very strict laws and it is easy to bring offenders to justice, other countries leave it up to individual moral judgment as to what is acceptable to say about others.

In general, there are two kinds of defamation and slander:

Insults are when, for instance, someone says that a person is stupid or mentally deranged. It is insulting and unpleasant, but it has to be extremely severe and a repeated occurrence for it to be punishable. It is, to a large extent, not illegal to insult people in this way, but hardly charming, and, for the most part, the person who does the insulting ends up looking more stupid or mentally deranged than the person being insulted.

Accusations means claiming that somebody acts in a criminal manner. For instance claiming that someone is a thief or a fraudster.

If one is slandered by somebody, one can sue the person responsible. In Europe the person making the accusation or insult, and who is being sued for it, must prove that the accusation or insult is true. If he cannot, he will be convicted. The burden of proof lies with the person making the slanderous statement. In the United States it is the other way around: the slandered person must prove that the accusation or insult is wrong. The burden of proof lies with the person slandered.

If it turns out that the accusation is true--that the accused person actually is a thief or fraudster--it is no longer defamation or slander. The accused person has actually committed a crime, and that changes the situation entirely.


Laws against racism or other forms of hate speech are meant as protection for all and as safeguards of democracy. They are intended to prevent assaults on individuals.

The challenge, with regard to racism, is how to protect groups (in reality minorities) against racism and similar hateful speech. Democracy concerns the rights of individuals, not of groups. This is because of the basic Humanistic principle that individuals are inviolable and have basic rights. This basic principle does not apply to groups. Some groups, like the mafia, are defined by their crimes, so they have no rights to respect, as a group. The individuals in these groups have the same rights as any other persons, but the group has no right to protection.

The situation with regard to ethnic groups, religious or sexual minorities, and people with disabilities is different. Individuals belonging to those groups have, of course, the same rights as other individuals and are protected by law in the same way as other individuals, but generally they are attacked and slandered as a group. In many countries, this has led to laws against racist speech and so-called hate-speech, which is directed at groups. In other countries, only individuals are protected. The manner in which laws concerning these issues work, and not least how they are enforced, varies greatly from country to country.

One problem with hate speech against groups is that people get hurt as individuals. Another problem is that such speech causes individuals in the groups concerned to hold back from participating freely in the public debate, because they are ridiculed and exposed before they have even expressed themselves. A third problem is the fact that it is often hate speech against groups which leads to assaults on individuals. Finally, hate speech has led to some of the worst atrocities committed against groups of people.


Laws against blasphemy should not be part of a democracy. Blasphemy is not directed against people, but against ideas, and one of the pillars of a free and open debate and of democracy is that all ideas can be discussed, criticized, perhaps rejected, and even ridiculed. This also includes religious ideas and holy scriptures.

A pragmatic argument for laws against blasphemy, even in a democracy, is that they are necessary in order to maintain social order. It is thus not to protect the gods or their prophets that restrictions against blasphemy are maintained, since it should be permissible to criticize and discuss these at all times; but as "social icing on the democratic cake", a ban on blasphemy can limit vicious attacks on issues that are sacred for a portion of the population.

In order for a law against blasphemy to be tolerable in a democracy, the state must guarantee religious freedom, and the state itself must be completely free of religious affiliation. If the state is associated with any particular religion, a ban on blasphemy and any restrictions on criticism of religion constitute restriction of criticism against the state, resulting in very limited freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech - laws and morals

Freedom of speech embodies one of the dilemmas of democracy, and it is not possible to define precisely the limits of this freedom. On the one hand, democracy is based on everybody being allowed to speak their mind, but on the other, it is also based on our feeling relatively secure in the company of other people.

One way to address the dilemma embodied within in freedom of speech is to differentiate between laws and morals.

It is necessary, in a democracy, for freedom guaranteeing that anything may be said - except for wilfully incorrect information or downright lies. At the same time, it is necessary in a well-functioning society that people treat each other with respect and do not always say out loud whatever is on their mind.

One example of this is bullying. It is not illegal to call an obese colleague or a classmate a "fat pig" or something like that, but it is also not morally right to bully a person in this way.

The difference, in a democracy, between law and morality is that the government can punish actions that are against the law. We must deal with acts against morality as fellow citizens, without intervention by the authorities.

Next chapter: Infrastructure and Freedom of Movement