Freedom of speech is the right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship. The term freedom of expression is sometimes used interchangeably, but includes any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used.
In Nigeria for example, government’s restriction of speech related to libel, slander, obscenity, pornography, sedition, incitement, fighting words, classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, right to privacy, right to be forgotten, political correctness, public security, public order, public nuisance and oppression occur with varying limitations. Whether these limitations can be justified under the harm principle depends upon whether influencing a third party’s opinions or actions adversely to the second party constitutes such harm or not. Governmental and other compulsory organizations often have policies restricting the freedom of speech for political reasons, for example, speech codes at state schools.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Today, freedom of speech, or the freedom of expression, is recognized in international and regional human rights laws. This right is also one of the basic tenets of the rule of law in Nigeria. But unfortunately, it has lost its place. Journalists are still put behind bars for speaking against the ills of government. There is little access to information on matters that relate to government activities even with the freedom of information act.
It is an inalienable right of individuals to express themselves and be heard without fear of discrimination. When individuals are free to express themselves, the society gets saner, and the world gets better. Freedom of speech serve as a viable tool in advancing the cause of liberty in Nigeria because it underpins most other rights and allows them to flourish. The rights of individuals to have access to information, speak their minds freely on important issues in society, and hold the powerful and influential people to account where necessary plays a vital role in the healthy development process of such society.
The lack of freedom of expression is a problem that most particularly affects the already marginalized individuals and groups in the society such as ethnic and religious minorities as well as the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people. Absence of freedom of speech often leads to the exclusion of many from meaningful participation in society, and from the opportunity to better their own circumstances and advance their personal liberty. Amartya Sen in his book: “Development as Freedom”, argued that expansion of freedom is both the primary end and the principal means of development. Access to free expression is also vital both to support the development process and as a development goal in its own right.
The freedom of speech of LGBT people in Nigeria is restricted, they are discriminated against for traditional, especially religious reasons and they face unique legal and social challenges not experienced by non-LGBT people. The country does not allow or recognize LGBT rights and no legal protection against discrimination. Nigeria has been criticized by human and civil rights organizations, majorly those based in Western countries where LGBT people have more or equal rights, as well as the United Nations, for failing to uphold, and even violating, the rights of LGBT people.
It’s true that free speech has limits and exceptions for fraud, libel, extortion, divulging military secrets, and incitement to imminent lawless action. But these exceptions must be strictly delineated and individually justified; they are not an excuse to treat speech as one fungible good among many. Despots in so-called “democratic governance” routinely jail their opponents on charges of treason, libel, and inciting lawlessness.
Freedom of speech constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and development. For any country to achieve both human and economic prosperity, the inalienable right of individuals to Free Speech must be obeyed and respected.
Freedom of speech and adequate access to information are pillars of a healthy democratic society and means to advance liberty for social and economic growth, allowing for the free flow of ideas necessary for innovation and bolstering accountability and transparency.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author(s) and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, click here to submit a guest post!