Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
Home » Misc. | About me Impressum Contact Sitemap

Abuse and misinterpretation of freedom of speech



The original version of the below was written in 2012 but publication delayed until 2023. In the interim, I have written a number of other texts on topics like free speech (TODO import from Wordpress and link), and my current take might differ in detail.

Also see an addendum on freedom of speech vs. freedom of the press.

Freedom of speech is intended to give individuals the right to express their own opinions, to expose the government to criticism, to allow accepted “truths” to be challenged, etc.

Today, however, it is often misinterpreted and abused for entirely different purposes by various commercial companies (mostly in advertising; but also many newspapers and magazines). This page discusses some problems.

News media, magazines, etc.

A potentially severe problem with freedom of speech is that it is often (in particular, by journalists...) not interpreted as the citizen’s right to state his opinion, but as a newspaper’s right to publish anything that it likes.

This is a perversion: Journalists should obviously have freedom of speech, and newspapers can be a strong force of criticism of the current government, prevalent attitudes in society, and similar. However, to a very high degree, this is not what papers do—or what they use freedom of speech for. Instead, it is abused to publish stories that are popular with the masses—including incursions into the private lives of various celebrities.

Tellingly, a recent attempt to ban unsolicited and non-consensual photography and filming (including secret cameras in showers) in Sweden was turned down, because the press complained that it would violate freedom of speech... This despite there being a large difference between claiming, e.g., that celebrity X has been admitted to a rehab clinic and, on the other hand, publishing a film of a disheveled, unhealthy, and turned-ugly X trying to enter the clinic, hounded by blood seeking journalists: The former might or might not, depending on circumstances, be a legitimate use of freedom of speech (if certainly not what freedom of speech was intended for—and quite possibly unethical for other reasons). The other has nothing to do with bringing over an opinion, but is merely a cheap exploitation of someone else’s personal tragedy, through a definitely unethical invasion of his sphere of privacy. Such a film might be a valid means of proof in front of a court, should a textual claim result in a libel suit, but will be only be validly published/broadcast under truly rare circumstances.


Indeed, when the phrase “the public has the right to know” is used in fiction, it typically refers to something that the public does not have the right to know. A more honest statement would be “the public is likely to be sufficiently interested in this that we will sell more copies”.


Advertising (in as far as it makes factual claims, at all) mostly consists of lies and/or statements that have no particular relationship to the product or service at hand. Indeed, we typically do not have a statement of honest opinion from the provider of the product/service, but generic and made-up claims by a third-party—the ad agency.

The idea of “truth in advertising” is unfortunately taken much too lightly, even by e.g. regulatory bodies—up to the point that a sufficiently outrageous lie/misrepresentation/whatnot might be allowed because it is so outrageous, based on deeply flawed reasoning of “no-one would believe it anyway”. A much stricter take, to minimize any and all attempts to mislead the potential customers, would be warranted—even if it nominally would restrict free speech.

Limit freedom of speech to individuals

Based on the above, I strongly suggest that full freedom of speech be limited to and refocused on individuals.

Organisations (including newspapers and various advertising agencies, respectively their customers) would have a more limited set of rights. Likely restrictions would include a duty to not lie (in the sense of deliberately making incorrect claims), to have made due diligence checks and research for all statements, and considerable protection of personal spheres (even for drug-using pop stars).


In light of later developments, notably the “fact checking” industry, some caution in the other direction might be needed. The large scale “fact checking” often amounts to nothing but a check for conformance with Leftist, far Left, woke, whatnot narratives—regardless of the actual, and very often opposite, facts of the matter. At the same time, employing a self-proclaimed “fact checker” could be an easy way to claim sufficient due diligence, which, in turn, could allow Leftist lies, propaganda, and whatnot to gain a greater dominance. As briefly discussed in one or two other texts, it is likely for the best if various organisations, including businesses, abstain from making statements, expressing opinions, “having values”, whatnot, in matters not of immediate relevance to its field of work—a soccer club, e.g., should focus on soccer and not on alleged transphobia.


Such restrictions might open other problems: I recall a scene in “Pleasantville” where the innocently accused try to defend themselves—and are silenced by the judge with the argument that they must not lie...

Similarly, it might not always be possible to tell what is the honest opinion of a journalist and what is a fabrication to sell more papers, let alone what lies in the border area of speculation. Here in dubio pro reo applies, but there are sufficiently many clear-cut cases that a rule could be cautiously applied without risking the true freedom of speech. Further, the mere fact that the rule is there, and that violating it can carry consequences, is likely to lead to a more honest and factual reporting—or, at least, to more articles making clear that they contain statements of mere personal opinion.

Further, as long as individuals have freedom of speech, the (hypothetical) problems will remain smaller than the problems (with regard to personal spheres, objectivity, whatnot) that would disappear. Freedom of speech is about the rights of the individual—not about the rights of the press.

Addendum on freedom of speech vs. freedom of the press, politics, etc.

The original text was written in a largely non-political context. When it comes to politics, the situation might be even more dire, as many journalists give the impression of wanting nothing more than to shutdown any non-journalist and/or any non-woke/-pc/-whatnot speech. In this, they favor freedom of the press but have no interest in freedom of speech outside freedom of the press. (And even freedom of the press might be limited to the “orthodox”. Note, however, that there are two different issues at hand, the one to eliminate competition for the attention of readers/viewers/whatnot, the other to eliminate “wrongthink”.)

A saner take would question whether a separate freedom of the press is needed, provided that free speech, in general, is sufficiently respected and protected. (The original text makes no explicit mention of freedom of the press. Whether this was a deliberate point or an odd oversight, I cannot tell, after so long a time; however, the sentiment that a separate freedom of the press was of limited value was clearly already present.)

Likewise, the most important part of freedom of speech is the right to criticize the government, individual politicians, and similar. However, many politicians, civil servants, and the like seem to take an entirely perverse view—that freedom of speech stops where they are concerned, and that no-one must ever speak ill of them. (Maybe, excepting other politicians.)

Addendum on the death of Matthew Perry

The recent (2023) death of Matthew Perry has brought to my mind similar thoughts on matters like privacy vs. what the public wants to know:

I have seen every single episode of “Friends” repeatedly and have always been struck by the parallels between Chandler and (especially, younger versions of) me. At the time of his death, my reading of Perry’s autobiography “Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing” was just a little while back, and had brought the added realization that there were unusual parallels between Perry and Chandler too. While these parallels were not always the same as between me and Chandler, there remained more of similarity between me and Perry than I had expected.


The exact range of similarities between me and Perry is off-topic, but (a) do include problematic romantic relationships, (b) do not include Perry’s drug problems and the medical and other issues that followed.

Looking at Chandler, the similarities sometimes felt ridiculous, including such details as both of us having a Swedish grandfather (two, in my case).

Consequently, I had a great natural interest in the events—much more so than if, hypothetically, one of the other stars of “Friends” had died.

Nevertheless, I found myself puzzled by the media attention, which seemed out of proportion compared to the typical reactions to a death. (Usually limited to a single day, with some mixture of brief reporting and eulogizing.) This especially for someone who, unlike e.g. Heath Ledger, was nowhere near the height of his career at the time of his death, nor, unlike e.g. Betty White, had a successful career that approached the combined lifespans of Perry and Ledger. There is a fair chance that the attention was brought on less by a wish for serious news reporting and more because of the combination of (partially former) fame, history of drug use, and the circumstances of death.

In particular, the recent cause-of-death reporting, several weeks after the death, left me with a feeling of “this is none of my business” and, despite considerable curiosity, I did no more than skim for the core conclusions (accidental, ketamine, drowning).

With Perry’s death, we have a clear case of “want to know” and not the so often claimed “has the right to know”. In contrast, with the contents of his autobiography, he had volunteered information to the public—and here, because of the volunteering, the public did have the right to know. This juxtaposition illustrates a large portion of the issues in my original text.