Free Expression: Philosophies, Boundaries, and Historical Perspectives

In the annals of human history, few ideals have been as cherished and contested as the right to free expression. But as with all freedoms, the boundaries of this right remain a subject of perennial debate, shaped by ever-evolving philosophies, historical events, and sociopolitical contexts. To gain a deeper understanding, we explain the various schools of thought, the limits often placed on free expression, and the historical scholarship that underpins these dialogues.


Rooted in the Enlightenment era’s principles, libertarian thinkers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill argue for minimal government intervention in speech. Mill’s “On Liberty” posits that free discourse is essential for intellectual and social progress. Any suppression of ideas, even erroneous ones, deprives society of the opportunity for correction and growth.


While there are overlaps with libertarianism, utilitarianism evaluates free speech based on its outcomes. If free expression leads to the greatest good for the greatest number, it’s deemed desirable. However, if such expression risks substantial harm, restrictions might be justified.


For communitarians, community values and social harmony are paramount. If unrestricted speech threatens communal bonds or social peace, it might be curtailed to preserve the collective well-being. This approach finds resonance in many Asian societies that prioritize collective over individual rights.


This perspective grapples with the challenges of diverse societies. It argues that to protect minority groups, some speech (like hate speech) that marginalizes or endangers these groups might need to be restrained.

Limits to Free Expression

Free speech is rarely absolute. Across societies, limits are often placed on expression. Here are some examples of when limits are placed.

Prevent harm: “Shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” as famously remarked by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., is restricted because of the direct harm it can cause.

Maintain public order: This often intersects with the communitarian viewpoint, where speech that might incite violence or widespread panic can be curbed.

Protect individual rights: Libel, slander, and certain types of hate speech are restricted to protect individual reputations and rights.

Uphold national security: Many nations restrict speech deemed a threat to national security, a controversial limit that’s often criticized for its potential misuse.

In Thailand, the situation of course is different. Certain laws like article 112 (lese majeste) and article 116 (sedition) of the criminal code severely limits free speech. While both laws were conceived to protect cherished institution and national security, in practice they are often employed to curtail political movements and used against political rivals.

Not just in Thailand, free expression remains one of humanity’s most potent yet contentious rights. The dance between freedom and its limits will likely continue, shaped by changing global landscapes and evolving societal values. As we navigate this complex realm, it’s crucial to remain informed, reflective, and open to the ever-unfolding nuances of this foundational human liberty.


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