Importance of Freedom of Speech in a Democracy

Democracy is a word we hear so frequently that often its meanings and contents are assumed and taken for granted. If we look at the etymology of the word, “democracy” is a combination of the Greek words ‘demos and ‘kratos’ meaning “the people” and “power” respectively. Together they mean “power of the people” or “power to the people”. It is from this that the idea of democracy as “for the people, by the people and of the people” emerges. Democracy is generally considered as the most efficient and viable form of governance in the modern world. The Greeks practiced a form of direct democracy which is the precursor to our current systems of governance. Representative democracy is the norm in most nations practicing democracy now as opposed to direct democracy. This involves the will of the people on the decision of who is most suited to represent them in the parliament. In the direct form of democracy, individuals participate directly in the process but many such as slaves and women were not considered as participants. Citizens in a democracy are guaranteed rights as well as duties. India is a parliamentary republic with the president as head of state and the prime minister as head of government. In the Indian Constitution, the fundamental rights of the citizen are listed in Articles 12-35, and they are the right to equality, right to freedom, right against exploitation, right to freedom of religion, cultural and educational rights, and right to constitutional remedies. Subsumed under right to freedom is the right to freedom of speech and expression in Article 19. The citizen who is to “abide by the Constitution and respect its ideals and institutions” must ensure that those she has elected into power are executing their duties accordingly.

The term “freedom of speech” refers to the articulation of ideas by sound while the term “freedom of expression” also encapsulates expressions through art that might be non-verbal, freedom of the press and acts of communicating informal, regardless of the medium that is employed. Both of these terms are currently used interchangeably. Freedom of expression is recognized as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It promotes creativity, individuality, autonomy, self-realization of the individual, gives him an active role in deciding matters of policy and provides space for criticism of the government. Curbing of free speech and expression is one of the first signs of the disintegration of democracy. One of the reasons there has to be freedom of speech is that of engaging in the governing process. To participate in the way that their nation, their society and themselves are defined, a citizen should be able to articulate their ideas and opinions.

Freedom of speech thus functions as a way of keeping all selfish and tyrannical ambitions of the ruler which is not for the benefit or desire of the public in check. It is called into question when it infringes on other rights such as democratic equality, privacy, or another’s right to expression. It is the inherent ambiguity of free speech boundaries that is exploited and manipulated in many situations by those wielding power and bent on a certain agenda. The privileging of voices, and who gets to decide who speaks and who is heard as well as who is to be silenced are questions that need to be asked.

There has to be constant and critical conversations among the public that are maintained at all costs lest a state of affairs where democracy becomes meaningless as a system comes by. One should be able to speak fearlessly. It is essential that prejudices and opinions not remain unchallenged and unquestioned, and there is an active promotion of a spirit of critical thinking and enquiry thereby reforming the mind as well. The absence of such evaluation can easily lead to a deterioration of the ideals of democracy. It is more important than ever now to ensure that the citizens are aware of their duty beyond voting and that their voices are heard. There is a need to ask the right questions and be aware of the complications that are part of the discussions on free speech. It is not so much about the revolution that speech can make as it is about the very act of speaking fearlessly, exercising our right as well as our discernment, and holding those in power accountable.

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