How Far Should Freedom of Expression Go?

Bryce Dunio '22, Guest Writer

In 2011, France became the first European state to nationally ban wearing a burqa in public. The act was of great controversy at the time, both in France as well as across much of the world, but the ban ultimately stayed. Five other European states since then have used this as a precedent for their own similar burqa bans, including otherwise unassuming states such as Denmark, Austria, and Belgium.

The French justified their ban on the surface as being their way of liberating Muslim women and helping to assimilate them into French culture, but contemporary rising Islamophobic attitudes across Europe have unmistakable stains on the bans.

We have been reading and discussing the past and current relations between European states and Islam in my West European Government and Politics class for the past few classes now, and among all my personal takeaways, one specifically has stayed constantly on my mind: Why can we not simply mind our own business?

This is undoubtedly a gross simplification of the concept freedom of expression, especially coming from an American point of view. After all, what makes the American view on freedom of expression correct? Is France right to ban the hijab, or Iran right to force women to wear the hijab? Is Russia right to ban the expression of gay pride? Is China right to forcefully silence its own citizens? Is even North Korea right to have state-approved haircuts? 

If freedom of expression is so subjective across the world, can there really be a true ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’?

Yes, there can be. And all of the aforementioned policies are flat out wrong.

Politicians and philosophers alike have throughout history argued vigorously about morality, rights and wrongs, and pretty much anything else that can devolve into pointlessly semantic shouting matches, but when it comes to principles based in logic and the maximization of freedom, I believe the rights of the individual are of the greatest value. 

Whether a Muslim woman is or is not wearing a hijab is her decision alone, not that of a state bloated by power and intoxicated by self-righteousness. Whether a gay Russian wants to express their pride in the streets of Moscow should be their decision alone, not that of a state desperately clinging to the past and consequently ruining its future. Whether a Chinese citizen wishes to express anti-CCP views or not is their decision alone, not that of a state that punishes those who speak the truth because it fears it. And whether a North Korean wishes to sport a fresh new cut or not is their decision alone, not that of a state treating human beings as soulless creatures only alive to serve the future members of the Kim dynasty.

If you ever find yourself in opposition to the way someone is expressing themselves, you need only ask yourself two questions:

  1. Are they directly harming or infringing on the rights of anyone?
  2. Are they naked?

If your answer to both of these is ‘no,’ then that is how far freedom of expression should go.