DOI: 10.5176/2251-3809_LRPP17.7

Authors: A. Keith Thompson


These two freedoms tied together in the US First Amendment since 1789, are widely recognized as the foundational human rights. Logically, one cannot speak freely unless one can first freely frame one’s thoughts in conscience and, following on, Freedom of Association is meaningless unless there is the freedom to speak when we associate in whatever communities we choose. But liberal western governments around the world have been experimenting with the old idea that we can qualify and separate these freedoms; that we can pick and choose what our subjects speak about and that carefully crafted restrictions will not undermine the human rights project as a whole. In this paper I will explore how free speech should be. I will begin with the generous American idea that calling out “Fire!” in a crowded picture theatre is reckless and reasonably subject to regulation. But then I will move on to the Rawlsian idea that we can and should circumscribe religious speech in the public square in the interests of overlapping consensus. I will suggest that this idea is the flawed product of American First Amendment jurisprudence post 1991; that it undermines the very idea of liberty and is philosophically and practically inconsistent with the Westminster version of democracy that Singapore and other Anglo democracies have inherited and need to cherish. I will conclude that democracy prospers best when we tolerate robust public speech including insults and offence short of incitements to violence, trusting that the marketplace of ideas will weed out and discredit speech that it identifies as unwise or democratically unhealthy. But in making this conclusion, I will acknowledge that what constitutes an incitement to violence is culturally variable.

Keywords: Freedom of Religion Freedom of Speech Rawlsian Public Reason Limitations on Speech Offence v violence


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