Rudolf Steiner often spoke of the ever-increasing individualism in our age (that period which he named the “Fifth Post-Atlantean Age”, which started around 1400 AD and is due to run until about 3500 AD). This is an inevitable continuing process and will bring many benefits if people are guided by conscience. However, if people are not guided by individual conscience, the forces of the individual will tear apart society.
Against the forces of individualism stands “society”, which encompasses law, unwritten “laws” of convention and expectation and also the powers of the State (which holds itself out as the concrete expression of the people as a whole).
Society is, of course, a good thing. In proper measure, it makes possible and supports such aspects of life as law, public order, organized help for the sick, disabled, elderly, poor etc. It is a structure which supports the family, too. It also provides, via the State, the structure for defence against outside forces (hostile states, natural calamities etc). However, if taken too far, society and/or the State becomes oppression, involving the repression of individual liberty in various ways (most obviously, perhaps, suppression of free speech or other freedom of expression).
Society restricts freedom of speech. It is hard to imagine a society beyond the most primitive or germinal in which complete freedom of speech exists (eg spoken or written threats against the person). On the other hand, when society (the State, or perhaps a religious or political cult) prevents individual expression, reasonable restriction becomes unreasonable repression. One thinks, perhaps, of the more extreme socialist states of the 20th Century, such as the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, China under Mao Tse-Tung, Albania under Enver Hoxha, Cuba under Fidel Castro. The same was true of anti-socialist tyrannies such as Nicaragua under Somoza.
Particular emergency conditions may lead to a temporary tightening of what is regarded as acceptable free speech. In the Second World War, the various combatants restricted free speech considerably. In the UK, those who spoke out against the war or government policy faced both prosecution (State) and persecution (society generally). Even the USA, with its famous Constitutional safeguards, clamped down on freedom of expression.
As in other fields of life, we can see that the tension between the demands of the individual qua individual and those of the collective results in what amounts to a compromise. It is a question of either where society (in practice, usually the State, but possibly a smaller community such as a town or even a family) decides where the line is drawn, or where the individual draws the line, based on conscience or preference and regardless of where the State and/or society has drawn it.
Most people, most of the time, obey the dictates of the collective. Were that not so, law could not exist except as a facade with nothing behind it (cf. Stalin’s Russia etc); neither could the State or its power, in the end. On the other hand, the individual must always obey conscience and it therefore becomes vital to distinguish between individual conscience and individual wilfulness or egoism. No outside force can decide what is conscience and what is wilfulness or egoism. The individual, the individual human soul, is the only judge or arbiter here. Where the individual and the collective collide, the results can range from martyrdom of the individual to reform or even revolution affecting the collective.
Where do I myself, as both individual and citizen (i.e. part of the collective) draw the line? For me, freedom of expression about social, political and historical matters should be absolute. Other forms of expression (eg threats, libels, fraudulent misrepresentations) can be (and commonly are) restricted to a greater or lesser extent.
It follows from the above that I prefer the approach taken in the United States to that of most EU states (including the UK). Restrictions on freedom of expression are often imposed for or from outwardly “good” motives, but rapidly become a slippery slope with evil results. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.