Civil Litigation

Freedom Of Expression: An Impression Of It’s Theory And The Limits To Freedom

Written by Team Farallon | January 24, 2019

This article revisits some of the theoretical underpinnings for the freedom of expression. By attempting to examine those theories, the grounds for the demarcation of permissible and impermissible expressions and therefore the limits to restricting that freedom will be examined together with the recommendation of reforms to Singapore’s libel law.

A. Introduction

1.  This article seeks to rehearse the theoretical underpinnings of the right to free expression. There are of course those commentators who have attacked those theories espoused in this article, but this writer does not rehearse those counter-arguments in this article. The writer assumes that it is absolute truth that freedom of expression is a fundamental requirement for human life, including the society to which one must belong in.

““Free” in itself is vague and indeterminate. It must take its colour from its context. Compare for instance, its use in free speech, free love, free dinner, free trade. Free speech does not mean free speech: it means speech hedged in by all the laws against defamation, blasphemy, sedition and so forth. It means governed by law.”

B. The Theories for free expression


“Historically the most durable argument for a free speech principle has been based on the importance of open discussion to the discovery of truth. If restrictions of speech are tolerated, society may prevent the ascertainment and publication of true facts and accurate judgments. The case is particularly associated with John Stuart Mill, but it was also made two centuries earlier by Milton, and it has played some part in theorizing of American judges.” (the “Mill Theory”)


“A second major theory of free speech sees it as an integral aspect of each individual’s right to self-development and fulfilment. Restrictions on what a man is allowed to say and write or (on some formulations of the theory) to hear or read, inhibit the growth of his personality.”(the “Self-fulfilment Theory”)


“A representative judicial view is this extract from Brandeis J’s judgment in Whitney v California 274 US 357 (1927) at 375:

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary…They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth….that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American people.” (the “Democratic Theory”)      

Part C

(ii)  Self-Fulfilment Theory

“A principal justification of freedom of expression is its contribution to the buttressing of democracy, and we shall consider it mainly from this perspective. It is believed that democracy is most secure, responsive and efficient – most likely to realize the high hopes place in it – if there is a free exchange of information and opinions and free to criticize those who exercise governing power.”   



“means any publication containing news, intelligence, reports of occurrences, or any remarks, observations of comments, in relation to such news, intelligence, reports of occurrences, or to any other matter of public interest, printed in any language and published for sale or free distribution at regular intervals or otherwise, but does not include any publication by or for the Government.”

“Local Publications, including magazines and newspapers are not pre-vetted. Complaints against a publication will be investigated by the MDA with the help of its citizen consultative committees.”