Friday 17 November 2017

Legal reforms and practical responses needed to protect freedom of speech

Last week, Trinity College Dublin and Columbia University New York held a symposium on fake news, facts and freedom of speech. It included a debate on reforming Ireland's defamation laws - and today we publish the essays of two of the speakers

The behaviour of US president Donald Trump has corroded traditional pillars of democracy. Photo: AP
The behaviour of US president Donald Trump has corroded traditional pillars of democracy. Photo: AP

Eoin O’Dell

Four challenges to freedom of speech require immediate attention. They are: state censorship; the power of social media platforms; state propaganda and misdirection; and fake news. Reform of the law to meet these challenges must assert traditional free speech values in the new contexts and must be supported by other practical responses.

The first modern challenge to freedom of speech is plain old-fashioned censorship, where a state's laws restrict disfavoured speech.

States do this directly, where the law simply bans speech (for example, the crime of blasphemy appears in the Defamation Act 2009 because of the reference to blasphemy in the Constitution). States also do this indirectly, where the law allows private actions to restrict speech (for example, crippling damages in defamation cases encourage self-censorship by journalists and editors).

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