Five Freedoms: Freedom of Speech

Fanned by the internet, the war over our right to say anything at all has created silos of intolerance. Fewer people are listening to differing points of view. And with less dialogue, nothing changes. But are there things that should not be said? A discussion with former politician Sheila Copps, human rights lawyer Micheal Vonn and journalist Althia Raj.
If freedom of speech has limits, then who gets to decide where those limits are? (Shutterstock)
Listen to the full episode53:59

** This episode was originally published on April 9, 2019.

In his 1941 State of the Union address, American president Franklin Roosevelt proposed four freedoms that he believed all people were entitled to: freedom of speech, freedom of belief, freedom from fear and freedom from want.

All this week, we explore ideas about the meaning of freedom in a series of discussions recorded at  the Stratford Festival. However, we've got a total of five freedoms in our list, and a stellar lineup of thoughtful people to dig into a central question for our times: what is freedom?

Freedom to Speak

What do you have a right to say? Is it ever ok to say whatever you want? In some places, like the United States, freedom of speech basically means you have the right to say nearly anything, and the idea is that the bright light of debate will push untruths aside. 

It's a nice idea, but easier said than done. In most societies, there are restrictions on what it's alright to say: criticising the president is ok in some places; in others, doing so can land you in prison, or hasten your execution.

And of course in the wild and lawless  lands of the internet, anyone appears to be able to say anything — although you might find it safest to say nothing at all. 

Michael Vonn is a human rights lawyer and Policy Director at the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. 1:40

However, the real question about free speech comes down to this: the downside of free speech is that it's virtually impossible to police, and innocent people can be badly damaged; the downside of restrictions on free speech is that it makes it easy for power to shut down dissent.

Perhaps the real answer is that there's no such thing as free speech: there's always a price.

The episode features a discussion with former politician Sheila Copps, human rights lawyer Micheal Vonn and journalist Althia Raj.

**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.