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On Free Speech and Free Expression (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/05/15


Tim Moen is the President of the Libertarian Party of Canada. Dr. Oren Amitay, Ph.D., C.Psych. is a Registered Psychologist and a Media Consultant. Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson is the Vice-President of Humanist Canada. David Rand is the President of Atheist Freethinkers of Canada. Dr. Rick Mehta is a Former Professor at Acadia University. They discuss: freedom of speech and freedom of expression in general; freedom of speech and freedom of expression in practice and in theory; and thinkers and writings on the topic in the current moment.

Keywords: David Rand, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson, Oren Amitay, Rick Mehta, Tim Moen.

On Free Speech and Free Expression (Part One)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*Interviewees only answered questions in which they felt appropriate for them.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Freedom of speech is protected within the First Amendment to the American constitution. Freedom of expression, internationally and nationally, is protected in other nations around the world. These different phrases have different meanings. In a coarse view or general perspective, what makes them more the same than different?

Tim Moen: Freedom of speech and freedom of expression in the legal sense are negative rights. Negative rights are essentially an obligation to not physically violate another person, or by extension, their property. So freedom of speech would be an obligation to not physically violate a person or their property for speech. The term “freedom of expression” is likely an attempt to ensure this negative right applies to all forms of communication including non-verbal.

So freedom of speech and expression ultimately means that neither individuals, nor the government they delegate authority to, have the right to use physical force to violate your person or confiscate your property for speech/expression. I think its important to note that the right to be left alone means that I cannot confiscate your property or punch you for insulting me on your property, or in the public space, but it also means that I don’t have to tolerate your insults at my dinner table and can exclude you from my domain.

Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson: Freedom of speech is a subset of freedom of expression; that is, freedom of expression includes freedom of speech along with other ways of communicating.

David Rand: Obviously, speech is a very common mode of expression, so that the two freedoms overlap greatly.

Dr. Rick Mehta: The way I see it. Freedom of speech has to do with the means of communication being a bit more narrow. It is about how you express yourself verbally, through written or oral forms of communication. Freedom of expression, my understanding is more general. It could include arts, such as painting as an example.

It could include sculptures too. Freedom of expression can include music. It covers much more and a much wider base with freedom of speech being one specific example within the broad realm of expression.

2. Jacobsen: In a more nuanced view, what separates freedom of speech from freedom of expression in theory and in practice?

Moen: Often freedom of speech and expression are used outside the legal concept of negative rights and individuals think it is a good policy for private institutions to promote or tolerate all types of speech. I think it is dangerous to conflate the two ideas because it undermines the legal foundation of freedom of speech (negative rights) to suggest that I must tolerate insults at my dinner table in the name of “free speech”. I often see free speech advocates promote government interference in the private domain because private property owners won’t tolerate certain types of speech. Using threats of physical force or confiscation of property to prevent exclusion from the private domain is an equally dangerous threat as using threats of physical force or confiscation of property to prevent certain types of speech.

Conflation of these two ways in which the “freedom of speech” is used also creates confusion around other issues. It’s not clear on what basis a “free speech absolutist” (ie someone who thinks property owners should be required to tolerate all speech) would argue that falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre would be a problem. It’s not clear how they would argue in favour of rules of debate where speakers are each allotted time to speak and time to be silent, or how rules about the audience being required to be silent wouldn’t be a violation of their conception of free speech.

In my conception of free speech falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre is a violation of negative rights for the theatre owner who relies on an enjoyable experience for his patrons, and a violation of the rights of paying customers to enjoy the product they paid for. Likewise having rules around debate in a public forum is necessary to properly communicate ideas and violating these rules violates the negative rights of the debate organizers and everybody who came to enjoy the debate.

Dr. Oren Amitay: We do not have “freedom of speech” in Canada, as we have hate laws in place. We consequently do not really have “freedom of expression” either, as saying “the wrong thing” can result in harsh legal, professional and/or financial consequences, for instance being dragged to the Human Rights Tribunal (provincial or federal) or taken to criminal or civil court. Others have lost their jobs. To be clear, these are not always cases in which someone has called for the outright harming of identifiable groups or individuals.

Robertson: I don’t think they can be separated in practise. In a nuanced view, freedom of speech has to do with the uncensored communication of ideas whereas freedom of expression also includes the ideal of living one’s life according to one’s beliefs. The first is essential to democracy, the second to diversity. But of course, that diversity includes diversity of belief which, if uncommunicated, is inert.

Rand: Freedom of expression may also include modes of expression other than speech, such as dress, music or other art forms.

Mehta: In theory, we’re supposed to be able to express ourselves freely. Basically, freedom of speech and freedom of expression means that you will not get intervention from the government. In practice, that doesn’t protect you from social norms. If people don’t like your painting, and if they decide to have it removed as an example, it protects from the state, not necessarily from what others may do or in social media with increasing regulation on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook. On YouTube, they demonetize videos within minutes of being released.

In practice, it can work very differently. Some service workers, we’re told the customer is always right. So, employers can tell employees how to behave on the job. In theory, we’re supposed to have freedom of expression in all areas of life. But depending on the workplace and social norms, there can be consequences for the actions if they are offended.

3. Jacobsen: What thinkers and writings represent crystalline and comprehensive statements on freedom of expression and freedom of speech? 

Moen: “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.” – Frederick Douglass

“My own opinion is a very simple one. The right of others to free expression is part of my own. If someone’s voice is silenced, then I am deprived of the right to hear. Moreover, I have never met nor heard of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or read. That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear, and that it must extend, above all, to those who think differently is, to me, self-evident.” – Christopher Hitchens – John Milton – John Stuart Mill – Murray Rothbard

Robertson: Humanist thought is predicated on the Enlightenment idea that knowledge creation is done by people. We may consider this axiomatic now; however, through much of human history knowledge was considered to be given through divine revelation. All ideas that did not conform to such revealed truths were, at best, folly and at worst, the work of evil. Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire, Locke and Spinoza rebelled against the resultant culture of censorship which served to stunt the growth of knowledge. Spinoza in particular held the view, still radical to this day, that no ideas should be censored.

David Rand: Not sure. Perhaps John Stuart Mill.

Mehta: I think probably our earliest were the people who said something. One quote is credited to Voltaire, “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it.” So, that’s probably the classic line. I hope that I am citing and giving credit to the right person.

That, I think, is an age-old adage. Now, whether that happens in practice, I think this comes and goes with the times. Right now, we are living in a time of a moral panic with the Me Too movement and the social justice movement.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, everyone.

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Tim Moen, President, Libertarian Party of Canada; Dr. Oren Amitay, Ph.D., C.Psych., Registered Psychologist and Media Consultant; Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson, Vice-President, Humanist Canada; David Rand, President, Atheist Freethinkers of Canada; Dr. Rick Mehta, Former Professor, Psychology, Acadia University.

[2] Individual Publication Date: May 15, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2019:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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