Proportionality and Limitations on Freedom of Speech

20 Pages Posted: 22 Mar 2019

See all articles by Grégoire Webber

Grégoire Webber

Queen's University - Faculty of Law; London School of Economics - Law School

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Date Written: March 22, 2019


‘Nothing is more certain in modern society’, Chief Justice Vinson wrote in the First Amendment case of Dennis v United States (1951), ‘than the principle that there are no absolutes’. That conviction was affirmed and developed in Justice Frankfurter’s concurring opinion, according to which ‘[t]he demands of free speech in a democratic society, as well as the interest in national security, are better served by candid and informed weighing of the competing interests’. Today, the confidence with which it is asserted that freedom of expression is not absolute and that competing interests are to be weighed and balanced in adjudicating free expression claims is even more resolute. Apex courts on all five continents adjudicate freedom of expression claims by denying that the freedom is absolute and by employing the principle of proportionality and its all-important balancing test. To demonstrate how much of the US debates from the 1950s and 1960s remain apposite today, I explore the appeal of proportionality and balancing for the adjudication of freedom of expression claims and review proportionality’s four evaluations. I conclude by revisiting the idea that freedom of expression cannot be absolute. It is an idea that is oft-repeated, but one that, I aim to show in brief, is based on a mistaken premise.

Keywords: proportionality, balancing, human rights, constitutional rights, First Amendment, freedom of expression, freedom of speech

Suggested Citation

Webber, Grégoire, Proportionality and Limitations on Freedom of Speech (March 22, 2019). Forthcoming, Fred Schauer and Adrienne Stone (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Freedom of Speech, Available at SSRN:

Grégoire Webber (Contact Author)

Queen's University - Faculty of Law ( email )

128 Union Street
Kingston, Ontario K7L3N6


London School of Economics - Law School ( email )

Houghton Street
London, WC2A 2AE
United Kingdom


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