Today we speak, we listen, we debate, we argue, we protest till our voices are heard, till our message is conveyed, till our opinions are noted. Everyone has the right to form their own opinions about everything, about things that we hardly encounter in our entire life. I have an opinion about the proposed European Super League. My friend has an opinion about why monarchial communism is better than democratic capitalism.
We are free to form our own opinions irrespective of their relativity in our life. And 90% of all our opinions are garbage, because we have the power today. But it wasn’t always the case.
History of Free Speech
"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"
- is one of the most influential quotes in the 21st century whose roots can be traced back to the 1700s when a famous french philosopher, Voltaire, started questioning the activities of the catholic church. It was an era of matured catholicism in several parts of Europe. But as an immediate
effect of the renaissance, there was a massive cultural, social, technological and religious awakening. The catholic churches had been dominating the politics with religion and the line between the two diminished. People rights were severely affected and their right to free speech lost. It is to voice against these injustices, scholars like Voltaire rose to the occasion but much to the vain before the might of the churches.
Learning from the mistakes of the ancestors, the concept of freedom of speech was constitutionalized for the first time by the United States of America in 1791. In 2021, freedom of speech is an integral part of any democracy to function. Any disturbances to this fundamental right have seen massive forms of protest throughout time since its inception.
But what has freedom of speech evolved to in the contemporary world?
Free Speech today
We are born into a world almost void of injustices against free speech. As evolution goes, humans have adapted to a reality that has been prevailing for more than 200 years now. With such evolution, comes the inherent trait of free speech that our ancestors thought was necessary for survival.
Survival of the fittest, right.! When comprehended in the wrong sense, led to World War II. About Hitler for another day.
However, the world sees freedom of speech as a fundamental right of the people in the 21st century. Under Article 19 of the Indian constitution, freedom of speech has been granted as a fundamental right.
Article 19: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Notice the word ‘everyone’ in the statement, meaning not only the citizens of India have the right to free speech but also those foreigners who reside in India, studying or working or even just a mere tourist. This is proof that the world has acknowledged the importance and the power of this right and we are headed in the right direction.
But as another great man once said, “with great power comes great responsibilities”. Peter Parker agrees.
When the voice of a common man is given power, it brings huge changes when needed. It has the ultimate power of even toppling a stable government. Now that is something we don’t want to see every day. Hence the right to freedom of speech provided by most countries is limited in nature. It is restricted power, in simple terms.
These restrictions are simply justified with the term “national interest”. And it does make sense to a country like India. It restricts the people from spreading misinformation, terror propaganda,
anti-nationalist agenda, separatist tendencies, mass radicalization, public humiliation and defamation.
Even the most advanced and progressive United States of America has certain limits to their right to free speech. But the USA comparatively has a must lenient rules when it comes to government criticism by the press and media. Poor Donald Trump.
Opinion as a gift of free speech
From a time when people were prosecuted for having an opinion against the state, we have come a long way to publicly roasting the first citizen of the world. This is a power gifted to us by the right to free speech. But where do opinions stand today?
I made a mindmap trying to evaluate how opinions are existing, shaping and affecting our lives in social, economic and political spheres.
I could talk on this for days together but to summarise my evaluation on where opinions stand today;
We either overdo it or underdo it. And in such process, an ignorant immature teen struggles as a socially inept person. Finding a balance is hard, resulting in issues with social compatibility.
Businessmen tap on people opinion to produce and market their product better.
The most tricky and challenging part comes in the political sphere. Democracy is built on people opinion and at the same time, terror is spread on a certain people opinion.
What we do on a day-to-day basis today, without even acknowledging it, is exercising our power to form opinions. The ones who have realized this truth of life, have utilized it in their favour to become successful in their field of works.
Steve Jobs set up his office in areas with high density of students and youth to understand what it was that they wanted. We have Apple.
Osama Bin Laden radicalized feeble youths by relating his opinion with their opinion. We witnessed 9/11.
People opinion combined with the right to free speech is a very powerful tool that can shape our world for the better or lead it to ruins. The current population of Gen Z and their opinions is what is going to be the next 3 decades. It has already started and the proof of it is visible everywhere. We are just blind to see it.
Free speech is a gift in itself.
P.S. The use of terms such as free speech, freedom of speech and right to freedom of speech does not only refer to speech alone as an activity but is also inclusive of the freedom of expression, opinion and the right to do so.