How Free Is Free Speech? Free Speech Appears to Be a Unifying Principle, but Often the Devil Is in the Details-The Actual Cases and Controversies Which Challenge Us

By Cohn, William A. | The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

How Free Is Free Speech? Free Speech Appears to Be a Unifying Principle, but Often the Devil Is in the Details-The Actual Cases and Controversies Which Challenge Us


Cohn, William A., The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs


Free speech has become a platitude. Like human rights and democracy, we're all in favor of it, but would rather not address the tough calls where core values collide. However, it's those tough cases, like media competition regulation, campaign finance reform, the Mohammed cartoons or Holocaust denial, which define free speech.

The Czech Republic is both remarkable, as a post-communist state which has come a long way in guaranteeing individual free speech, and unremarkable, as now just another country where individual freedoms and liberties are guaranteed, yet stifled. Nonetheless, there are some distinctive and provocative features of the Czech free speech landscape today.

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By examining some of the specific issues which define and breathe life into free speech we may better understand its complexity and sharpen our views on the reach of free speech--what do we really mean when we say we are in favor of free speech?

Free Speech Perspectives

There are some well-established approaches to deciding free speech controversies. Which approach best captures your views on free speech?

Absolutists see free speech as an inviolable right which the state may not interfere with (no way, no how); access theorists believe that free speech ensures the public's right to know and every individual's right to disseminate his or her viewpoint; ad hoc balancers consider free speech to be just another right which should be balanced with competing interests on a case by case basis; preferred position balancers maintain that since free speech is essential in preserving other fundamental rights, the burden of proof rests on those seeking to restrict free speech in cases where it is questioned; and, others emphasize that free speech is most importantly a means towards successful self-governance, thus, speech that relates to governance merits absolute protection.

On its face, the Czech Constitution guarantees free speech even more than the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which casts free speech not as an affirmative right, but as something the state shall not hinder. Article 17 of the Czech Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms sets forth that for each and every individual: "(1) Freedom of expression and the right to information are guaranteed; (2) Everybody has the right to express freely his or her opinion by word, in writing, in the press, in pictures or in any other form, as well as freely to seek, receive and disseminate ideas and information irrespective of the frontiers of the State; (3) Censorship is not permitted."

Constitutional guarantees oft en just provide a framework for societal aspirations. Free speech laws serve loft y ideals, but the real world is far from ideal. Consider, for instance, the battle between the paparazzi and individual privacy. Thus, free speech law confronts culture and history--including hatred, intolerance, greed and insecurity. The contemporary free speech controversies which follow shed light on the cumbersome reach of free speech.

Media Ownership and the Free Press

As satellites, transmitters and airwaves are publicly financed, should broadcasters serve the public interest? Should the highest bidder have paramount right to broadcast? Is the media different from other profit-driven businesses? Is the Internet different from other media?

Historically, the free press has served as a watchdog in the West--with a proud tradition as muckrakers exposing abuses of power. In the post-communist world the free press is less than 20 years old. Since the media was state-controlled under communism, the closest thing to a free press was underground dissident voices. Today, questions abound concerning the independence of the press, largely related to the economic consolidation of major media ownership by a relatively small number of big corporations. Others point to media's economic pressures and growing dependence on inside players to get the story and generate advertising revenue.

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