The Interplay of Free Speech, Tolerance, and Security

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett, J.D.
Founder/President G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

Free speech is often hailed among the most significant of our fundamental freedoms. In the Western world in particular, freedom of speech and press has allowed for a range of voices, including voices of dissent that seem to indicate that our democracy is in a sense working. However, free speech is not completely free. There are limits and curbs based on what may be of greater importance in various contexts – such as if the speech might endanger others. That is why we can’t yell “fire” in a theater as a joke – the potential chaos and harm it raises in that context outweighs some one’s freedom to say what they want.

In more recent times the idea of tolerance has become significant too – although people are often divided on just what that means. In general it would imply that we are at least to allow for differing or different perspectives. Tolerance has become a specifically strong term with regard to various cultures and religious perspectives. However, tolerance and free speech are not always symbiotic. Often, one’s interest in protecting free speech may also offend the interest in promoting tolerance. And tolerance may also be abridged by legal concerns – which is how extremism can also be deemed criminal.

Both of these concepts – freedom of speech and tolerance – can also affect and be affected by another interest, security. Ensuring the safety and security of the public is a paramount concern of government. And in that interest, the government can, under certain circumstances, prevent individuals from saying whatever they want in whatever context and/or prevent them from exercising their cultural and/or religious perspectives. For example, there are many laws against inciting to riot, use of “hate speech,” and terrorism. And, the Department of Homeland Security may also engage in limiting certain privacy rights in order to ensure that our communications (verbal or written speech) doesn’t raise concerns for potential threats to others.

It is the interplay between these concepts of free speech, tolerance, and security that is central in many of the conflict issues in our globe today. It reached a particular height of tension in the context of the murder of the staffers and security officers at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. There is no question that the killings were an act of extremism by terrorists and thus criminal. And there is also no question that the lives lost are a tragedy not only for the people of France, but also for journalists and right of free speech across the globe. However, in the aftermath of the event, there is both discontent and disagreement over the interplay between the three concepts of free speech, tolerance, and security in the context of Charlie Hebdo.

When analyzing the larger landscape of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, and potentially other similar situations, we must ask whether Charlie Hebdo can and should be able to write and print anything they want, even if it offends the notion of tolerance and/or security. Clearly nothing they print should warrant violence. But does the media have some responsibility to also engage in the notion of tolerance if the general public is supposed to do the same? Further, does context matter? France’s population of Muslims has increased to nearly 20 percent of their overall population. Would the type of political cartoons that make fun of, criticize, or altogether disparage their religion be considered intolerance against a significant portion of their populous? Would that warrant some form of protest (albeit not violence)? Also would such speech be tantamount to yelling “fire” in a theater – raising the potential of risk of endangering but raising the ire of extremism?

These are difficult questions raising difficult issues both to our notions of free speech and tolerance and to our broader understanding of democracy. The reality is that our freedoms are not always in harmony. Many times the exercise of one’s freedom may inhibit the exercise of another’s. But when does one freedom trump another?

While the answer to that question is not simple, I think the overarching response is that when broader concerns such as public security significantly outweigh the interests of the freedom. There is some risk in this response as we don’t want to encourage a regime that puts a militaristic or totalitarian approach to governance or to the exercise of freedoms. But, if people are not secure, they also can not exercise freedoms.

This idea that public security is necessary for full exercise of freedoms must be balanced against a number of interests including individual rights. That means, when we have an interest in restraining suspected terrorists, we may also have an interest in protecting certain procedural rights. But to the extent that we are trying to ensure that public lives are not at risk, curtailing certain individual freedoms is also necessary within reason.

What is challenging at this juncture is determining when security threats warrant the limits on freedoms and to what degree. If the French government, for example, had known that Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures and commentaries were offensive to the Muslim residence and citizens, at what point can or should the government intervene to either promote the interest of tolerance and/or protect the French population in general from an extreme response to these offenses. Do we just let free speech play out and allow the government to play the role of “clean-up” afterwards or is there something more preemptive in order?

This discussion also weighs on the notion of tolerance in general. What is tolerance if it is not exercised fully? And to what degree does this notion seem to be at odds with others’ freedoms and rights. Certainly Charlie Hebdo should be covered by free speech/free press to say many things – and even things that may offend—since restricting these freedoms is among the greatest threats to democracy. However, an inconsistent application of the idea of tolerance where media and others can be deeply offensive if not “intolerant” renders that idea meaningless. Further the idea of tolerance is also problematic in the context of the cultures and religious perspectives it is deemed to support, as it may not always work in a reciprocal way. How do we allow freedom of speech and freedom of religious expression when any particular form of religious expression is “intolerant” of other perspectives?

The point to this analysis is to understand that the issues of freedom of speech, tolerance, security are not singular. It is the interplay between them that we need to be aware of when making statements, decisions, and laws to address concerns. At various points, one or the other of these concepts may step to the forefront of priorities, but at other times they may need to be set aside temporarily or permanently when one of the other interests are greater. This ebb and flow of interests is not only what makes it challenging to protect only one fundamental freedom, but it also opens an opportunity to protect all the freedoms in a more concerted way. Champions of free speech would thus recognize that freedom alongside the interests of respect and security. Those who want to freely exercise their religious view need also to consider reciprocity and mutuality. And those who are concerned about security interests need to also recognize that no one is secure when individual rights are ignored. In today’s world, the specter of violence and the importance of protecting freedoms require no less than an interrelated understanding and approach to freedoms rather than a myopic and singular defense of one interest.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.