During the age of Socrates and Plato, absolute freedom of speech was not believed to have been of paramount significance as the state was considered far superior to an individual. But gradual transformation took place over the centuries with the likes of Voltaire and John Stuart Mill advocating absolute freedom of speech and laying more importance upon exemption from societal norms. However, aeonian debates could not help reach an agreeable conclusion and convergent ideas continue to spring up in everyone’s mind even today.
While some suggest absolute freedom is quintessential for a marketplace of ideas to shape a better society, others find a need for restrictive freedom (quite a paradox wherein freedom of speech is advocated, but is not absolute). Which of the two is advisable could largely be left to individual reasoning and belief, but an effort can be made to determine the supposedly better alternative.
More often than not, an ‘ideal’ consideration is impractical and what seems ‘practical’ is not ideal.
Such is the case with absolute freedom of speech. In theory, it seems to be undeniably perfect, but the reality is in stark contrast. Which is why though Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India guarantees freedom of speech as a fundamental right, clause (2) of the same article imposes certain limitations on absolute expression of thought; thoughts cannot be confined, but curbing their expression in certain situations is mandated to avoid conflicts and provide a sense of security. Legal scholars propose a harm thesis that offensive utterances harm people the same way that physical blows do, a fact unknown to many and they harbour a false notion that freedom of speech also includes freedom from any consequence.
Under absolute freedom, the heightened magnitude of such psychological abuse could only be imagined.
Another ramification arising would be absolute freedom to the press and media, contributing to corrupted and fake news’ production. The only respite may be the absence of one-sided news stories, but it is not worth the high risk of a possible abuse of power. Thus, even the Supreme Court of India has ruled out that “free press is not an absolute right;” though it may be quintessential for political and educative functions and especially so in a democratic country. But without certain restrictions, the situation would most certainly be unfavourable for the country and for its people as media possesses the power to affect how and what people think.
Moreover, with the advent of social media, absolute freedom of speech could result in pandemonium. It would further provide an impetus to the rising crime of cyberbullying, which has been found to be more grievous than face-to-face bullying, resulting in greater suicide rates, especially among teenagers.
Furthermore, though absolute freedom of speech preaches a noble cause; freedom of exchange of ideas to all individuals, it has an encompassing range of application, from highly personal to professional issues. As a result, it may be manipulated to act in one’s own self interest and lead to innumerable conflicts, especially when relating to religious, racial or national beliefs. Instead of helping create a marketplace of ideas, absolute freedom could create a marketplace of disagreements.
In conclusion, absolute freedom of speech would lead to a general disregard of others’ sentiments while trying to justify one’s own. It seems to far-fetched for everyone to consider opinions contrary to those held by them without any argument and with civility like Voltaire who quotes ““Think for yourself and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too” (Traité sur la tolérance, à l’occasion de la mort de Jean Calas). Until that day arrives, it is for the general benefit of all that freedom of speech is preserved, but not beyond measure.