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Freedom of speech and social sciences

Freedom of speech is the freedom to express information, ideas, and opinions, by an individual or a community, without any interference or restrictions. According to some psychologists, there is no alternative to free speech, as the controversial topics vary depending on the people and their different opinions. What is a controversial topic for a group of people may not be controversial for another group, and vice versa, so how could someone decide what should be allowed as a free speech?

Historical context

We now live in a society where we can express ourselves freely, but this is not a reality for everyone around the globe and it was certainly not the reality for many populations in the past century.

During the 20th century, many European countries were under dictatorship regimes, meaning that a small elite retained all the power and most of the population had some of its freedoms taken away, including the freedom of speech. As a matter of fact, in 1946 only 20 countries in the world could be counted as a democracy. Additionally, most of the leaders resorted to intimidation and manipulation in order to have a better control of the population, and mass propaganda was also common.

Portugal was one of the countries living through a dictatorship in the last century. During the regime, although much of the population had liberty to some extent, when compared to many of the dictatorial regimes in other countries, freedom of speech was conditioned. People couldn’t freely express their opinions, especially if this opinion was opposite to the one of the government. This system ended on the 25th of April of 1974, date that was turned into a national holiday.

Can social sciences exist under absolutist regimes?

Particular features of dictatorships might affect the development of social sciences, as these undergo deep restructuration during the first years of a regime and are often used solely to defend the national culture against international criticism. The ideological campaigns that take place during these times may result in massive exodus of social scientists. However, social sciences still exist under this settings, for example practical and ideological needs of socialist states institutionalized social sciences on a similar pace to those of the democratic countries after the World-war II, however, unlike in the democracies, the autonomy was always threatened and, when the findings were contrary to the power’s opinion, subject to censorship.

Selective perception

Selective perception is the phenomenon of perceiving what feels right to us, ignoring the opposite point of views. This is the reason why a group of people witnessing the same occurrence can have a different perception of what happened.

A study from the 50s, where a film of a controversial football game was shown to students of both teams, the students from one team reported that both teams had made a similar number of infractions, whereas the students from the other team reported that the other made twice as many infractions as they did. It seemed that the students were watching different videos.

Selective perception explains then the bias for people with different opinions over the same episode and makes it clear why some subjects may be controversial and aggressive for a determined group and not for other. When it comes to lack of freedom of speech, the selective bias would make it difficult to choose which topics were forbidden or, alternatively, if these were decided by people with the same views and opinions would only reflect the opinion of a restricted part of the population.

Wrapping up

Freedom of speech is quite important for a society, however it is sometimes compromised, mainly in the situation in which there is also a lack of other types of freedom. In this context social sciences, including behavioural science, get compromised and, although they might develop, this happens in very restrictive and controlled settings.


Catarina Chambino


"Psychology And Free Speech". 2018. Association For Psychological Science - APS.

Meyersburg, Cynthia. 2018. "How Selective Perception Affects The Campus Free Speech Debate".

Kirtchik, Olessia, and Mariana Heredia. 2015. "Social And Behavioral Sciences Under Dictatorship".

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