123 Freedom of Speech Topics & Essay Examples

Looking for exciting freedom of speech topics to write about? This issue is definitely worth studying!

🔝 Top 10 Freedom of Speech Essay Topics

⁉️ freedom of speech essay: how to write, 🏆 best freedom of speech essay examples & topic ideas, 🔍 simple & easy freedom of speech essay titles, 💡 most interesting freedom of speech topics to write about, ❓ research questions about freedom of speech.

In your freedom of speech essay, you might want to focus on the historical perspective, elaborate on the negative effects of censorship, or even share your personal experience. Whether you will choose to write an argumentative, persuasive, or narrative essay, our article will help! We’ve gathered a list of excellent topics, ideas, and questions, together with A+ freedom of speech essay examples.

  • Freedom of speech as an individual and a collective right
  • Freedom of speech and its limitations
  • Negative effects of censorship
  • The origins of freedom of speech
  • Freedom of speech as a negative right
  • Democracy and freedom of speech
  • Freedom of information in the era of Internet
  • Freedom of speech and academic freedom
  • Liberalism and freedom of speech
  • Freedom of speech in the US

Freedom of speech is an important topic because every person has a fundamental right to express their opinions freely. Our ability to express our thoughts allows society to change and develop.

Essays on freedom of speech can raise awareness of the significance of this issue. That is why it is vital to create powerful and well-developed papers on this cause.

You can discuss various topics in your freedom of speech essay. You can search for them online or consult your professor. Here are our suggestions on freedom of speech essay analysis questions:

  • The advantages and disadvantages of free speech policies
  • The struggle schools face from the perspective of free speech
  • The appropriate use of free speech
  • The link between the freedom of speech and yellow journalism
  • Speech as a personality trait: What the freedom of speech can reveal about people
  • Freedom of speech: Pros and cons
  • Freedom of speech in the United States (or other countries)

Once you have selected one of the titles for your essay, it is time to start working on the paper. Here are some do’s of writing the essay:

  • Select topics that you are most interested in, as your dedication can help you to keep the reader engaged too. You can select one from the freedom of speech essay titles presented above.
  • Develop a well-organized freedom of speech essay outline. Think of the main points you want to discuss and decide how you can present them in the paper. For example, you can include one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one concluding paragraphs.
  • Define your freedom of speech essay thesis clearly. You should state it at the end of the introduction. The reader should understand the main point of your paper.
  • While working on a persuasive essay, do not forget to include a section with an alternative perspective on the problem you are discussing.
  • Remember that a concluding paragraph is vital because it includes a summary of all arguments presented in the paper. Rephrase the main points of the essay and add recommendations, if necessary.
  • Check out essay examples online to see how you can structure your paper and organize the information.

Remember that you should avoid certain things while writing your essay. Here are some important don’ts to consider:

  • Do not focus on your personal opinion solely while writing your paper. Support your claims with evidence from the literature or credible online sources.
  • Do not ignore your professor’s requirements. Stick within the word limit and make sure that your essay meets all the criteria from the grading rubric, if there is one.
  • Avoid using personal blogs or Wikipedia as the primary sources of information, unless your professor states it in the instructions. Ask your instructor about the literature you can use for the essay.
  • When checking other students’ essays online, avoid copying their ideas. Remember that your paper should be plagiarism-free.
  • Make sure that your paper is mistake-free. Grammatical mistakes may make the reader think that your opinion is not credible. It is better to check the essay several times before sending it to your professor.

Don’t hesitate to explore our free samples that can help you to write an outstanding essay!

  • Freedom of Speech in Social Media Essay Gelber tries to say that the history of the freedom of speech in Australia consists of the periods of the increasing public debates on the issue of human rights and their protection.
  • Freedom of Speech on Campus The primary issue identified by the case study is the extent to which free speech can be used and is protected regarding sensitive social aspects and discussions.
  • Balancing Freedom of Speech and Responsibility in Online Commenting The article made me perceive the position of absolute freedom of speech in the Internet media from a dual perspective. This desire for quick attention is the creation of information noise, distracting from the user […]
  • Freedom of Speech as a Basic Human Right Restricting or penalizing freedom of expression is thus a negative issue because it confines the population of truth, as well as rationality, questioning, and the ability of people to think independently and express their thoughts.
  • Freedom of Speech and Propaganda in School Setting One of the practical solutions to the problem is the development and implementation of a comprehensive policy for balanced free speech in the classroom.
  • Twitter and Violations of Freedom of Speech and Censorship The sort of organization that examines restrictions and the opportunities and challenges it encounters in doing so is the center of a widely acknowledged way of thinking about whether it is acceptable to restrict speech.
  • Freedom of Speech in Social Networks The recent case of blocking the accounts of former US President Donald Trump on Twitter and Facebook is explained by the violation of the rules and conditions of social platforms.
  • Teachers’ Freedom of Speech in Learning Institutions The judiciary system has not clearly defined the limits of the First Amendment in learning institutions, and it’s a public concern, especially from the teachers.
  • Privacy and Freedom of Speech of Companies and Consumers At the same time, in Europe, personal data may be collected following the law and only with the consent of the individuals.
  • Freedom of Speech in Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech Even though the First Amendment explicitly prohibits any laws regarding the freedom of speech, Congress continues to make exceptions from it.
  • Freedom of Speech as the Most Appreciated Liberty In the present-day world, the progress of society largely depends on the possibility for people to exercise their fundamental rights. From this perspective, freedom of speech is the key to everyone’s well-being, and, in my […]
  • Why Defamation Laws Must Prioritize Freedom of Speech The body of the essay will involve providing information on the nature of defamation laws in the USA and the UK, the implementation of such laws in the two countries, and the reason why the […]
  • The Internet and Freedom of Speech: Ethics and Restrictions Because of a lack of security technology, across the board prohibition is justified under the law, a concept that is in itself considered unlawful by a strict definition of the First Amendment of the Constitution […]
  • Protesting as a Way of Exercising Freedoms of Speech and Expression However, this department will be very careful in monitoring the behavior of the protestors and engaging in dialogue to solve issues that may lead to conflicts.
  • Freedom of Speech Comes With Responsibility In Australia, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are highly valued accomplishments nowadays. According to Conroy, the present Press Council, and the current ACMA, the two existing establishments aimed to […]
  • Freedom of Speech: Is Censorship Necessary? One of the greatest achievements of the contemporary democratic society is the freedom of speech. However, it is necessary to realize in what cases the government has the right to abridge the freedom of self-expression.
  • Supreme Court Decision: Corporations and Freedom of Speech The Constitution is the framework for the Government of the United States that protects and guarantees the basic rights of the people.
  • Value of Copyright Protection in Relation to Freedom of Speech The phrase, freedom of expression is often used to mean the acts of seeking, getting, and transfer of information and ideas in addition to verbal speech regardless of the model used. It is therefore important […]
  • Freedom of Speech and the Internet On the one hand, the freedom of expression on the internet allowed the general public to be informed about the true nature of the certain events, regardless of geographical locations and restrictions.
  • Newt Gingrich Against Freedom of Speech According to the constitution, the First Amendment is part of the United States Bill of rights that was put in place due to the advocation of the anti-federalists who wanted the powers of the federal […]
  • The Freedom of Speech: Communication Law in US By focusing on the on goings in Guatemala, the NYT may have, no doubt earned the ire of the Bush administration, but it is also necessary that the American people are made aware of the […]
  • Freedom of Speech and Expression in Music Musicians are responsible and accountable for fans and their actions because in the modern world music and lyrics become a tool of propaganda that has a great impact on the circulation of ideas and social […]
  • Freedom of Speech and International Relations The freedom of speech or the freedom of expression is a civil right legally protected by many constitutions, including that of the United States, in the First Amendment.
  • The Importance of Freedom of Speech In a bid to nurture the freedom of speech, the United States provides safety to the ethical considerations of free conversations.
  • Canada’s Freedom of Speech and Its Ineffectiveness In the developed societies of the modern world, it is one of the major premises that freedom of expression is the pivotal character of liberal democracy.
  • American Student Rights and Freedom of Speech As the speech was rather vulgar for the educational setting, the court decided that the rights of adults in public places cannot be identic to those the students have in school.
  • Freedom of Speech in Modern Media At the same time, the bigoted approach to the principles of freedom of speech in the context of the real world, such as killing or silencing journalists, makes the process of promoting the same values […]
  • Freedom of Speech: Julian Assange and ‘WikiLeaks’ Case Another significant issue is that the precedent of WikiLeaks questions the power of traditional journalism to articulate the needs of the society and to monitor the governments.
  • Advertising and Freedom of Speech According to Liodice, the marketer should provide the best information to the targeted consumer. The duty of the marketer is to educate and inform the consumer about the unique features of his or her product.
  • Freedom of Speech and Expression This implies that autonomy is the epitome of the freedom of expression in many ways. Perhaps, this is the point of diversion between autonomy and restriction of the freedom of expression.
  • Freedom of speech in the Balkans Freedom of speech in Montenegro In Montenegro, the practice of the freedom of speech and press were restricted to some issues by the law.
  • “The Weight of the Word” by Chris Berg From this analysis therefore, we see that, state interference in the wiki leaks saga was unwarranted, and it amounted to a breach of the freedom of the press.
  • Freedom of Speech in China and Political Reform Although the constitution of China has the provision of the freedom of speech, association, press and even demonstration, the freedom is not there in reality since the constitution forbids the undertaking of anything that is […]
  • Controversies Over Freedom of Speech and Internet Postings It must be noted though that despite the Freedom of Speech being a first Amendment right, subsequent amendments to the constitution as well as various historical acts such as the Sedition Act of 1798 and […]
  • Government’s control versus Freedom of Speech and Thoughts One of the most effective measures that oppressive regimes use the world over is the limitation of the freedom of speech and thoughts.
  • Freedom of Speech: Exploring Proper Limits In this respect, Downs mentions the philosophy of educational establishments, where “the function of the University is to seek and to transmit knowledge and to train student in the process whereby truth is to be […]
  • Freedom of Speech, Religion and Religious Tolerance As stipulated in Article 19 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, the pastor has the right to share ideas and information of all kinds regardless of the periphery involved and in this case, he should […]
  • Why Free Speech Is An Important Freedom Freedom of speech is an important aspect of social life in a civilized and democratic society. Although there has been debate on the justification of freedom of speech, it is important to realize that society […]
  • Human Nature and the Freedom of Speech in Different Countries The paper will look at the human nature that necessitates speech and expression, freedom of speech as applied in different countries and limitations that freedom of speech faces.
  • The Freedom Of Speech, Press, And Petition
  • How The First Amendment Protects Freedom Of Speech
  • The Freedom Of Speech, And Gun Ownership Rights
  • The Misconception of Hate Speech and Its Connection with the Freedom of Speech in Our First Amendment
  • Limitations On Constitutional Rights On Freedom Of Speech
  • Teachers’ and Students’ Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression
  • Internet Censorship Means No Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of Speech Part of America’s Constitution
  • An Examination of the Disadvantage of Freedom of Speech in Slack Activism
  • A Description of Freedom of Speech as One of the Most Important Freedoms
  • How Censorship In The Media Is Taking AWay Our Freedom Of Speech
  • An Analysis of Freedom of Speech and Its Punishments
  • The Effects Of Technology On The Right Of Freedom Of Speech
  • Freedom of Speech: Missouri Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. Kansas City
  • Problems with Limiting Freedom of Speech
  • How The Freedom Of Speech And Its Interpretation Affects
  • Giving Up Freedom Of Speech – Censorship On Hate Sites
  • Freedom Of Speech, Religion, And The American Dream
  • The Freedom Of Speech Across The World Wide Web
  • Freedom of Speech: Should There be Restrictions on Speech in the U.S. Democracy
  • An Argument in Favor of the Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press in Schools
  • Freedom Of Speech And Violent Video Games
  • The Importance of Freedom of Speech to the Progress of Society
  • The Amendment Is Not Protected Under The Freedom Of Speech
  • Should There Be Restrictions to Freedom of Speech
  • Why Should Myanmar Have Similar Freedom of Speech Protections to United States
  • An Analysis of the Freedom of Speech and the Internet in United States of America
  • Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment
  • Free Speech : The Benefits Of Freedom Of Speech
  • Comparison of Freedom of Speech: Malaysia vs China
  • The Fine Line between Freedom of Speech or Hate Speech
  • Freedom Of Speech : One Of The Core Principles Of A Democracy
  • Prevent Internet Censorship, Save Freedom of Speech
  • The Importance of the First Amendment in Providing Freedom of Speech in America
  • How the Freedom of Speech Is Possible Through the Internet in China
  • The Importance of Freedom of Speech in Higher Education
  • Hate Mail and the Misuse of the Freedom of Speech on the Internet
  • A Comparison of Freedom of Speech and Private Property
  • Importance Of Freedom Of Speech In Colleges
  • Freedom Of Speech and Its Legal Limits
  • Freedom Of Speech As An International And Regional Human Right
  • The Importance of Protecting and Preserving the Right to Freedom of Speech
  • An Overview of the Importance of the Freedom of Speech in the United States
  • The Communication Decency Act: The Fight for Freedom of Speech on the Internet
  • Freedom Of Speech On Students’s Rights In School
  • How Far Should the Right to Freedom of Speech Extend
  • Journalism and Freedom of Speech
  • The Constitution and Freedom of Speech on the Internet in U.S
  • ‘Freedom of Speech Means the Freedom to Offend.’
  • Does the Law Relating to Obscenity Restict Freedom of Speech?
  • Does New Zealand Have Freedom of Speech?
  • How Far Should the Right to Freedom of Speech Extend?
  • Does South Korea Have Freedom of Speech?
  • How the First Amendment Protects Freedom of Speech?
  • Does Freedom of Speech Mean You Can Say Anything?
  • How Do You Violate Freedom of Speech?
  • What Are Mill’s Four Main Arguments in Defence of Freedom of Speech?
  • What Violates the Freedom of Speech?
  • What Are the Disadvantages of Freedom of Speech?
  • Does Freedom of Speech Have Limits?
  • Why Does Australia Not Have Freedom of Speech?
  • What Are the Three Restrictions to Freedom of Speech?
  • How Is Freedom of Speech Abused?
  • Who Benefits and Loses from Freedom of Speech?
  • Is There Freedom of Speech in Media?
  • What Are the Limits of Freedom of Speech in Social Media?
  • Does Social Media Allow Freedom of Speech?
  • How Is Freedom of Speech Negative?
  • Where Is Freedom of Speech Not Allowed?
  • Is USA the Only Country with Freedom of Speech?
  • Does India Have Freedom of Speech?
  • Who Made the Freedom of Speech?
  • Why Was Freedom of Speech Created?
  • Who Fought for Freedom of Speech?
  • Chicago (A-D)
  • Chicago (N-B)

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Freedom of Speech

By: History.com Editors

Updated: July 27, 2023 | Original: December 4, 2017

A demonstration against restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the united states of America.Illustration showing a demonstration against restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the united states of America 1875. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Freedom of speech—the right to express opinions without government restraint—is a democratic ideal that dates back to ancient Greece. In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees free speech, though the United States, like all modern democracies, places limits on this freedom. In a series of landmark cases, the U.S. Supreme Court over the years has helped to define what types of speech are—and aren’t—protected under U.S. law.

The ancient Greeks pioneered free speech as a democratic principle. The ancient Greek word “parrhesia” means “free speech,” or “to speak candidly.” The term first appeared in Greek literature around the end of the fifth century B.C.

During the classical period, parrhesia became a fundamental part of the democracy of Athens. Leaders, philosophers, playwrights and everyday Athenians were free to openly discuss politics and religion and to criticize the government in some settings.

First Amendment

In the United States, the First Amendment protects freedom of speech.

The First Amendment was adopted on December 15, 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights—the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution . The Bill of Rights provides constitutional protection for certain individual liberties, including freedoms of speech, assembly and worship.

The First Amendment doesn’t specify what exactly is meant by freedom of speech. Defining what types of speech should and shouldn’t be protected by law has fallen largely to the courts.

In general, the First Amendment guarantees the right to express ideas and information. On a basic level, it means that people can express an opinion (even an unpopular or unsavory one) without fear of government censorship.

It protects all forms of communication, from speeches to art and other media.

Flag Burning

While freedom of speech pertains mostly to the spoken or written word, it also protects some forms of symbolic speech. Symbolic speech is an action that expresses an idea.

Flag burning is an example of symbolic speech that is protected under the First Amendment. Gregory Lee Johnson, a youth communist, burned a flag during the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas to protest the Reagan administration.

The U.S. Supreme Court , in 1990, reversed a Texas court’s conviction that Johnson broke the law by desecrating the flag. Texas v. Johnson invalidated statutes in Texas and 47 other states prohibiting flag burning.

When Isn’t Speech Protected?

Not all speech is protected under the First Amendment.

Forms of speech that aren’t protected include:

  • Obscene material such as child pornography
  • Plagiarism of copyrighted material
  • Defamation (libel and slander)
  • True threats

Speech inciting illegal actions or soliciting others to commit crimes aren’t protected under the First Amendment, either.

The Supreme Court decided a series of cases in 1919 that helped to define the limitations of free speech. Congress passed the Espionage Act of 1917, shortly after the United States entered into World War I . The law prohibited interference in military operations or recruitment.

Socialist Party activist Charles Schenck was arrested under the Espionage Act after he distributed fliers urging young men to dodge the draft. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction by creating the “clear and present danger” standard, explaining when the government is allowed to limit free speech. In this case, they viewed draft resistant as dangerous to national security.

American labor leader and Socialist Party activist Eugene Debs also was arrested under the Espionage Act after giving a speech in 1918 encouraging others not to join the military. Debs argued that he was exercising his right to free speech and that the Espionage Act of 1917 was unconstitutional. In Debs v. United States the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Espionage Act.

Freedom of Expression

The Supreme Court has interpreted artistic freedom broadly as a form of free speech.

In most cases, freedom of expression may be restricted only if it will cause direct and imminent harm. Shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater and causing a stampede would be an example of direct and imminent harm.

In deciding cases involving artistic freedom of expression the Supreme Court leans on a principle called “content neutrality.” Content neutrality means the government can’t censor or restrict expression just because some segment of the population finds the content offensive.

Free Speech in Schools

In 1965, students at a public high school in Des Moines, Iowa , organized a silent protest against the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands to protest the fighting. The students were suspended from school. The principal argued that the armbands were a distraction and could possibly lead to danger for the students.

The Supreme Court didn’t bite—they ruled in favor of the students’ right to wear the armbands as a form of free speech in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District . The case set the standard for free speech in schools. However, First Amendment rights typically don’t apply in private schools.

What does free speech mean?; United States Courts . Tinker v. Des Moines; United States Courts . Freedom of expression in the arts and entertainment; ACLU .

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Chapter 6: The Right to Freedom of Speech

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The free communication of thoughts and opinions is one of the invaluable rights of man; and every citizen may freely speak, write and print on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of that liberty.

Free speech is our most fundamental—and our most contested—right. It is an essential freedom because it is how we protect all of our other rights and liberties. If we could not speak openly about the policies and actions of government, then we would have no effective way to participate in the democratic process or protest when we believed governmental behavior threatened our security or our freedom. Although Americans agree that free speech is central to democratic government, we disagree sharply about what we mean by speech and about where the right begins and ends. Speech clearly includes words, but does it also include conduct or symbols? Certainly, we have the right to criticize the government, but can we also advocate its overthrow? Does the right to free speech allow us to incite hate or use foul language in public?

The framers of the Bill of Rights understood the importance of free expression and protected it under the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech.” Both English history and their own colonial past had taught them to value this right, but their definition of free speech was much more limited than ours. Less than a decade after the amendment’s ratification, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798, making it a crime to criticize the government. Many citizens believed government could forbid speech that threatened public order, as witnessed by numerous early nineteenth-century laws restricting speech against slavery. During the Civil War, thousands of antiwar protestors were arrested on the theory that the First Amendment did not protect disloyal speech. Labor unrest in the 1800s and 1890s brought similar restraints on the right of politically unpopular groups, such as socialists, to criticize government’s failure to protect working people from the ills of industrialization and economic depression.

Freedom of speech did not become a subject of important court cases until the twentieth century when the Supreme Court announced one of the most famous principles in constitutional law, the clear and present danger test. The test was straightforward: government could not restrict speech unless it posed a known, immediate threat to public safety. The standard sought to balance the need for order with the right to speak freely. At its heart was the question of proximity, or closeness, and degree. If speech brought about an action that was dangerous under the immediate circumstances, such as falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, then it did not enjoy First Amendment protection. With this case, Schenck v. United States (1919), the Court began a decades-long process of seeking the right balance between free speech and public safety.

The balance, at first, was almost always on the side of order and security. Another case decided in 1919, Debs v. United States , illustrates how restrictive the test could be. Eugene Debs was a labor leader from Indiana who had run for President four times as the candidate of the Socialist Party of America, once polling more than one million votes. At a June 1918 rally in Chicago, while U.S. troops were fighting in World War I, he told the working-class crowd, “You need to know you are fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.”

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic . . . The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.

He was sentenced under an existing federal statute to twenty years in prison for inciting disloyalty and obstruction of military recruitment, which the Supreme Court upheld.

For the next five decades, the Court wrestled with the right balance between speech and order. Much of what defined freedom of speech emerged from challenges to the government’s ability to regulate or punish political protest. Each case brought a new set of circumstances that allowed the justices an opportunity to modify or extend the clear and present danger test. Many decisions recognized the abstract right of individuals to speak freely, but each one hedged this right in important ways. Always in the background were conditions that pointed to disorder, dissension, and danger—the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, among them—so the justices were cautious in expanding a right that would expose America to greater threats. These cases, however, gradually introduced a new perspective on the value of free speech in a democracy, namely, the belief that truth is best reached by the free trade in ideas.

The belief that society is best served by a marketplace of ideas open to all opinions, no matter how radical, ultimately prevailed. In 1927, the Court had endorsed what came to be called the bad tendency test: if officials believed speech was likely to lead to a bad result, such as urging people to commit a violent act, it was not protected under the First Amendment even if no violence occurred. By 1969, however, similar facts produced a different outcome. Ku Klux Klan members in Ohio invited a television station to film their rally. Waving firearms, they shouted racist and anti-Semitic slurs and threatened to march on Congress before their leader was arrested and later convicted under a state law banning speech that had a tendency to incite violence. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in Brandenburg v. Ohio and established the rule still in effect today: the First Amendment protects the right to advocate the use of force or violence, but it does not safeguard speech likely to incite or produce an immediate unlawful act. The Brandenburg test has allowed Nazis to march, Klan members to hold rallies, and other extremist groups to promote views far outside the mainstream of public opinion. With few exceptions—fighting words and obscenity, for example—government today cannot regulate the content of speech.

Even as society was coming to accept a wide range of political ideas, opposition to an unpopular war raised other questions about the limits and forms of free speech. By the mid- to late 1960s, the Vietnam War divided Americans. Although many citizens supported the use of U.S. troops to stop communism in Asia, a growing minority, including many draft-age young people, took to the streets to oppose the war. The protestors did not limit their efforts to antiwar speeches; they also wore shirts with obscene slogans, burned draft cards, and desecrated American flags. Using these symbols to protest, they argued, was a form of free speech. Soon, the Supreme Court faced the question squarely in a case involving a youthful protestor from the nation’s heartland: is symbolic speech—messages using symbols or signs, not words—protected by the First Amendment?

The first large-scale American demonstration against the Vietnam War occurred in November 1965 when more than 25,000 protestors converged on the nation’s capital. Fifty Iowans made the long bus ride, and on the way home they decided to make their opposition known locally by wearing black armbands to work and school. One member of the peace contingent was Lorena Tinker, the wife of a Des Moines Methodist minister and mother of five children. Mary Beth Tinker, a thirteen-year-old eighth grader, followed her mother’s suggestion and became one of a handful of local public school students who wore this symbol of protest to school. This act placed her in the middle of a national controversy about student rights and freedom of expression.

In many ways, Mary Beth was a normal eighth grader. She was a good student who enjoyed singing, spending time with her friends, and taking part in church activities. What made her different was a commitment to social justice, a passion encouraged by her parents, both of whom were known for their activism. Her parents wanted their children to share their moral and social values, and Mary Beth responded eagerly to their invitation to participate with them. By the time she became a teenager, she already had attended her first protest, accompanying her father to a rally about fair housing.

Mary Beth Tinker, her brother, John, and a handful of Des Moines students planned their demonstration for December 16, 1965. The students’ aim was not to protest the war but to mourn its casualties, Vietnamese and American, and to show support for proposed peace talks. School officials, however, promised to suspend anyone who came to school wearing the armbands, and the school principal suspended Mary Beth and sent her home. She was one of five students suspended that day for wearing the offending cloth. Significantly, the school ban applied only to armbands, in other words, to students who opposed the Vietnam War; a number of students that day wore an array of other symbols, including the Iron Cross, a Nazi medal.

When the school board upheld the suspensions, the Tinkers persuaded the Iowa Civil Liberties Union to take the case to federal court. Two lower federal courts agreed with the school’s action, rebuffing the argument that the policy violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. The Supreme Court decided otherwise. In its 7-to-2 decision, announced in February 1969, the justices held that the wearing of armbands is a symbolic act akin to “pure speech” and protected by the right to free expression. The protesting students posed no threat to the order required for effective instruction, nor did the wearing of armbands interfere with the school’s educational mission. In this instance, the balance between order and liberty was weighted on the side of the First Amendment. Students and teachers, the Court concluded, do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Symbolic speech has been the focus of some of our greatest constitutional drama. Words may be powerful and provocative, but symbols are often more inflammatory because they are visual and evoke an emotional response. We live in an age when we use pictures and symbols to convey important messages, whether in politics or the marketplace. For these reasons, the Supreme Court’s recognition of symbolic speech as a right protected by the First Amendment has been a significant development. Twenty-five years after Mary Beth Tinker put on her armband in remembrance of the war dead, Life magazine featured a handful of civil liberties cases to celebrate the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights. Mary Beth’s case was included, even though the rights of students remained, and still are, more limited than those of adult citizens. But her actions as an eighth grader expanded our conception of constitutionally protected speech to include the symbols we use to express our convictions.

Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.

More than most other recent decisions, cases involving symbolic speech have revealed how contentious the right of free speech remains in our society. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected individuals who burned the American flag in protest. This decision was highly controversial, and it has resulted in numerous attempts to amend the Constitution to protect the flag and, in effect, limit speech in this circumstance. The outcome of this effort is uncertain, but the debate raises important questions: What role does this right play in our democracy? How does it contribute to our liberty as Americans?

The right to speak freely, without restraint, is essential to democratic government because it helps us develop better laws and policies through challenge, rebuttal, and debate. When we all have the ability to speak in the public forum, offensive opinions can be combated with an opposing argument, a more inclusive approach, a more effective idea. We tolerate offensive speech and protect the right to speak even for people who would deny it to us because we believe that exposing their thoughts and opinions to open debate will result in the discovery of truth. This principle is an old one in Western thought. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent in Abrams v. United States , a 1919 case suppressing free speech, is a classic statement of this view: “The best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which [the public’s] wishes safely can be carried out.”

Governmental actions to deny differing points of view, even distasteful or unpopular opinions, rob us of the range of ideas that might serve the interests of society more effectively. In a case decided almost a decade before Tinker v. Des Moines , the Supreme Court found this rationale especially applicable to the classroom. “The Nation’s future,” the justices wrote, “depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth out of a multitude of tongues.” As a nation, we are willing to live with the often bitter conflict over ideas because we believe it will lead to truth and to improved lives for all citizens. We recognize that freedom of speech is the first freedom of democracy, as the English poet John Milton argued during his own seventeenth-century struggle to gain this right: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” The ability to speak freely allows us to pursue truth, to challenge falsehoods, to correct mistakes—all are necessary for a healthy society.

Free speech also reflects a commitment to individual freedom and autonomy, the right to decide for ourselves and to pursue our own destiny. Throughout our history, we have been so committed to individual choice that many foreign observers believe it is our most characteristic trait. We see it reflected daily in everything from advertising slogans—“Have It Your Way”— to fashion statements, but fail to recognize how closely freedom is tied to the right to speak freely. Free speech guarantees us an individual voice, no matter how far removed our opinions and beliefs are from mainstream society. With this voice we are free to contribute as individuals to the marketplace of ideas or a marketplace of goods, as well as to decide how and under what circumstances we will join with others to decide social and governmental policies.

A commitment to free speech, of course, will not resolve all conflict, not if our history is any guide. The debate is most contentious during times of war or other moments when national security is at stake. Even then—perhaps especially then—we will continue to fight over words and symbols because they express our deepest hopes and our most worrisome fears. This contest over what speech is acceptable and what is not has been a constant theme of our past. Rarely do these struggles produce a neat consensus. More often, intemperate rhetoric and bitter division have been their legacy, and this angry clamor is one of the basic noises of our history. What makes the struggle to protect free speech worthwhile is its ability to serve as a lever for change. When we practice our right to speak openly, we are defining the contours of our democracy. It is messy work, but through it, we keep the Constitution alive and, with it, our dreams of a just society.

“Free Trade in Ideas”

Jacob Abrams was a Russian immigrant and anarchist convicted of violating the Sedition Act of 1918, which made it a crime to advocate anything that would impede the war effort during World War I. In 1917 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., had written the Court’s opinion in Schenck v. United States , upholding similar convictions because Congress had a right to regulate speech that posed a “clear and present danger” to public safety. But by the time Abrams’s appeal reached the Court in 1919, Holmes had modified his views. Disturbed by anti-radical hysteria, he dissented from the majority’s decision upholding Abrams’s conviction in Abrams v. United States . His eloquent discussion of the connection between freedom of speech and the search for truth soon became the standard used by the Supreme Court to judge free speech cases until Brandenberg v. Ohio in 1972. The First Amendment, Holmes reasoned, protected the expression of all opinions “unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

But as against dangers peculiar to war, as against others, the principle of the right to free speech is always the same. It is only the present danger of immediate evil or an intent to bring it about that warrants Congress in setting a limit to the expression of opinion where private rights are not concerned. Congress certainly cannot forbid all effort to change the mind of the country. Now nobody can suppose that the surreptitious publishing of a silly leaflet by an unknown man, without more, would present any immediate danger that its opinions would hinder the success of the government arms or have any appreciable tendency to do so . . .

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally express your wishes in law and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care whole heartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country . . . Only the emergency that makes it immediately dangerous to leave the correction of evil counsels to time warrants making any exception to the sweeping command, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” Of course I am speaking only of expressions of opinion and exhortations, which were all that were uttered here, but I regret that I cannot put into more impressive words my belief that in their conviction upon this indictment the defendants were deprived of their rights under the Constitution of the United States.

“Malicious Words” versus “Free Communication”

In response to fears about imminent wars with France in 1798, the Federalist-controlled Congress passed a series of four acts known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts. Section 2 of the Sedition Act made it a crime to make defamatory statements about the government or President. (Sedition is an action inciting resistance to lawful authority and tending to lead to the overthrow of the government.) The act was designed to suppress political opposition. Its passage by Congress reveals how limited the definition of the right of free speech was for some Americans only a few years after the ratification of the First Amendment.

Sec. 2 . . . That if any person shall write, print, utter, or publish, or shall cause or procure to be written, printed, uttered or published, or shall knowingly and willingly assist or aid in writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress of the United States, or the President of the United States, with intent to defame the said government, or either house of the said Congress, or the said President, or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States, or to stir up sedition within the United States, or to excite any unlawful combinations therein, for opposing or resisting any law of the United Sates, or any act of the President of the United States, done in pursuance of any such law, or of the powers in him vested by the constitution of the United States, or to resist, oppose, or defeat any such law or act, or to aid, encourage or abet any hostile designs of any foreign nation against the United States, their people or government, then such person, being thereof convicted before any court of the United States having jurisdiction thereof, shall be punished by a fine not exceeding two thousand dollars, and by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

James Madison, congressman from Virginia, and Thomas Jefferson, the sitting Vice President, secretly drafted resolutions protesting the Sedition Act as unconstitutional. The Virginia and Kentucky legislatures passed these resolutions in 1798. Both resolutions especially pointed to the act’s violation of First Amendment protections, as seen in the Virginia Resolution here.

Resolved, . . . That the General Assembly doth particularly protest against the palpable and alarming infractions of the Constitution in the two late cases of the “Alien and Sedition Acts” passed at the last session of Congress; the first of which exercises a power no where delegated to the federal government, and which by uniting legislative and judicial powers to those of executive, subverts the general principles of free government; as well as the particular organization, and positive provisions of the federal constitution; and the other of which acts, exercises in like manner, a power not delegated by the constitution, but on the contrary, expressly and positively forbidden by one of the amendments thereto; a power, which more than any other, ought to produce universal alarm, because it is levelled against that right of freely examining public characters and measures, and of free communication among the people thereon, which has ever been justly deemed, the only effectual guardian of every other right.

That this state having by its Convention, which ratified the federal Constitution, expressly declared, that among other essential rights, “the Liberty of Conscience and of the Press cannot be cancelled, abridged, restrained, or modified by any authority of the United States,” and from its extreme anxiety to guard these rights from every possible attack of sophistry or ambition, having with other states, recommended an amendment for that purpose, which amendment was, in due time, annexed to the Constitution; it would mark a reproachable inconsistency, and criminal degeneracy, if an indifference were now shewn, to the most palpable violation of one of the Rights, thus declared and secured; and to the establishment of a precedent which may be fatal to the other.

The Sedition Act expired in 1801 but not until a number of the Federalists’ opponents, including Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont, had been convicted of violating the law. Today, historians consider the Sedition Act to have been a gross misuse of government power. In 1798, the Kentucky Resolutions focused on the rights of states to determine the limits of free speech.

Resolved, that it is true as a general principle, and is also expressly declared by one of the amendments to the Constitution, that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people;” and that no power over the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, or freedom of the press being delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, all lawful powers respecting the same did of right remain, and were reserved to the States or the people: that thus was manifested their determination to retain to themselves the right of judging how far the licentiousness of speech and of the press may be abridged without lessening their useful freedom, and how far those abuses which cannot be separated from their use should be tolerated, rather than the use be destroyed.

Related Resources

  • Timeline: First Amendment - Freedom of Speech
  • Video: A Conversation on the Constitution with Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor: Freedom of Speech

Table of Contents

SEP thinker apres Rodin

Freedom of Speech

This entry explores the topic of free speech. It starts with a general discussion of freedom in relation to speech and then moves on to examine one of the first, and best, defenses of free speech based on the harm principle. This provides a useful starting point for further digressions on the subject. The discussion moves on from the harm principle to assess the argument that speech can be limited because it causes offense rather than direct harm. I then examine arguments that suggest speech can be limited for reasons of democratic equality. I finish with an examination of paternalistic and moralistic reasons against protecting speech, and a reassessment of the harm principle.

1. Introduction: Boundaries of the Debate

2.1 john stuart mill's harm principle, 2.2 mill's harm principle and pornography, 2.3 mill's harm principle and hate speech, 3.1 joel feinberg's offense principle, 3.2 pornography and the offense principle, 3.3 hate speech and the offense principle, 4.1 democratic citizenship and pornography, 4.2 democratic citizenship and hate speech, 4.3 paternalistic justification for limiting speech, 5. back to the harm principle, 6. conclusion, bibliography, other internet resources, related entries.

The topic of free speech is one of the most contentious issues in liberal societies. If the liberty to express oneself is not highly valued, as has often been the case, there is no problem: freedom of expression is simply curtailed in favor of other values. Free speech becomes a volatile issue when it is highly valued because only then do the limitations placed upon it become controversial. The first thing to note in any sensible discussion of freedom of speech is that it will have to be limited. Every society places some limits on the exercise of speech because speech always takes place within a context of competing values. In this sense, Stanley Fish is correct when he says that there is no such thing as free speech. Free speech is simply a useful term to focus our attention on a particular form of human interaction and the phrase is not meant to suggest that speech should never be interfered with. As Fish puts it, “free speech in short, is not an independent value but a political prize” (1994,102). No society has yet existed where speech has not been limited to some extent. As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty , a struggle always takes place between the competing demands of liberty and authority, and we cannot have the latter without the former:

All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed—by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. (1978, 5)

The task, therefore, is not to argue for an unlimited domain of free speech; such a concept cannot be defended. Instead, we need to decide how much value we place on speech in relation to the value we place on other important ideals: “speech, in short, is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good” (Fish, 1994, 104). In this essay, we will examine some conceptions of the good that are deemed to be acceptable limitations on speech. We will start with the harm principle and then move on to other more encompassing arguments for limiting speech.

Before we do this, however, the reader might wish to disagree with the above claims and warn of the dangers of the “slippery slope.” Those who support the slippery slope argument warn that the consequence of limiting speech is the inevitable slide into censorship and tyranny. Such arguments assume that we can be on or off the slope. In fact, no such choice exists: we are necessarily on the slope whether we like it or not, and the task is always to decide how far up or down we choose to go, not whether we should step off the slope altogether. It is worth noting that the slippery slope argument can be used to make the opposite point; one could argue with equal force that we should never allow any removal of government intervention because once we do we are on the slippery slope to anarchy, the state of nature, and a life that Hobbes described in Leviathan as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (1968, 186).

Another thing to note before we engage with the harm principle is that we are in fact free to speak as we like. Hence, freedom of speech differs from some other forms of freedom of action. If the government wants to prevent citizens engaging in certain actions, riding motor bikes for example, it can limit their freedom to do so by making sure that such vehicles are no longer available. For example, current bikes could be destroyed and a ban can be placed on future imports. Freedom of speech is a different case. A government cannot make it impossible to say certain things. The only thing it can do is punish people after they have said, written or published their thoughts. This means that we are free to speak or write in a way that we are not free to ride outlawed motorbikes. This is an important point; if we insist that legal prohibitions remove freedom then we have to hold the incoherent position that a person was unfree at the very moment she performed an action. The government would have to remove our vocal chords for us to be unfree in the same way as the motorcyclist is unfree.

A more persuasive analysis of freedom of speech suggests that the threat of a sanction makes it more difficult and potentially more costly to exercise our freedom. Such sanctions take two major forms. The first, and most serious, is legal punishment by the state, which usually consists of a financial penalty, but can stretch occasionally to imprisonment. The second threat of sanction comes from social disapprobation. People will often refrain from making public statements because they fear the ridicule and moral outrage of others. For example, one could expect a fair amount of these things if one made racist comments during a public lecture at a university. Usually it is the first type of sanction that catches our attention but, as we will see, John Stuart Mill provides a strong warning about the chilling effect of the latter form of social control.

We seem to have reached a paradoxical position. I started by claiming that there can be no such thing as a pure form of free speech: now I seem to be arguing that we are, in fact, free to say anything we like. The paradox is resolved by thinking of free speech in the following terms. I am, indeed, free to say what I like, but the state and other individuals can sometimes make that freedom more or less costly to exercise. This leads to the conclusion that we can attempt to regulate speech, but we cannot prevent it if a person is undeterred by the threat of sanction. The issue, therefore, boils down to assessing how cumbersome we wish to make it for people to say certain things. The best way to resolve the problem is to ignore the question of whether or not it is legitimate to attach penalties to some forms of speech. I have already suggested that all societies do (correctly) place some limits on free speech. If the reader doubts this, it might be worth reconsidering what life would be like with no prohibitions on libelous statements, child pornography, advertising content, and releasing state secrets. The list could go on. The real problem we face is deciding where to place the limits, and the next sections of the essay look at some possible solutions to this puzzle.

2. The Harm Principle and Free Speech

Given that Mill presented one of the first, and still perhaps the most famous liberal defense of free speech, I will focus on his claims in this essay and use them as a springboard for a more general discussion of free expression. In the footnote at the beginning of Chapter II of On Liberty , Mill makes a very bold statement:

If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered. (1978, 15)

This is a very strong defense of free speech; Mill tells us that any doctrine should be allowed the light of day no matter how immoral it may seem to everyone else. And Mill does mean everyone:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (1978, 16)

Such liberty should exist with every subject matter so that we have “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological” (1978, 11). Mill claims that the fullest liberty of expression is required to push our arguments to their logical limits, rather than the limits of social embarrassment. Such liberty of expression is necessary, he suggests, for the dignity of persons.

This is as strong an argument for freedom of speech as we are likely to find. But as I already noted above, Mill also suggests that we need some rules of conduct to regulate the actions of members of a political community. The limitation he places on free expression is “one very simple principle,” now usually referred to as the Harm Principle, which states that

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (1978, 9)

There is a great deal of debate about what Mill had in mind when he referred to harm; for the purposes of this essay he will be taken to mean that an action has to directly and in the first instance invade the rights of a person (Mill himself uses the term rights, despite basing the arguments in the book on the principle of utility). The limits on free speech will be very narrow because it is difficult to support the claim that most speech causes harm to the rights of others. This is the position staked out by Mill in the first two chapters of On Liberty and it is a good starting point for a discussion of free speech because it is hard to imagine a more liberal position. Liberals find it very difficult to defend free speech once it can be demonstrated that its practice does actually invade the rights of others.

If we accept the argument based on the harm principle we need to ask “what types of speech, if any, cause harm?” Once we can answer this question, we have found the appropriate limits to free expression. The example Mill uses is in reference to corn dealers; he suggests that it is acceptable to claim that corn dealers starve the poor if such a view is expressed through the medium of the printed page. It is not acceptable to express the same view to an angry mob, ready to explode, that has gathered outside the house of the corn dealer. The difference between the two is that the latter is an expression “such as to constitute…a positive instigation to some mischievous act,” (1978, 53), namely, to place the rights, and possibly the life, of the corn dealer in danger. As Daniel Jacobson (2000) notes, it is important to remember that Mill will not sanction limits to free speech simply because someone is harmed by the statements of others. For example, the corn dealer may suffer severe financial hardship if he is accused of starving the poor. Mill distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate harm, and it is only when speech causes a direct and clear violation of rights that it can be limited. The fact that Mill does not count accusations of starving the poor as causing legitimate harm to the rights of corn dealers suggests he wished to apply the harm principle sparingly. Other examples where the harm principle may apply include libel laws, blackmail, advertising blatant untruths about commercial products, advertising dangerous products to children (e.g. cigarettes), and securing truth in contracts. In most of these cases, it is possible to make an argument that harm has been committed and that rights have been violated.

There are other instances when the harm principle has been invoked but where it is more difficult to demonstrate that rights have been violated. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the debate over pornography. As Feinberg notes in Offense to Others: the Moral Limits of the Criminal Law most attacks on pornography up to the 1970's were from social conservatives who found such material to be immoral and obscene; (Feinberg notes that there is no necessary link between pornography and obscenity; pornography is material that is intended to cause sexual arousal, whereas something is obscene when it causes repugnance, revulsion and shock. Pornography can be, but is not necessarily, obscene). In recent times the cause against pornography has been joined by some feminists who have maintained that pornography degrades, endangers, and harms the lives of women. This argument, to have force, must distinguish between pornography as a general class of material (aimed at sexual arousal) and pornography that causes harm by depicting acts that violently abuse women. If it can be demonstrated that this latter material significantly increases the risk that men will commit acts of physical violence against women, the harm principle can legitimately be invoked.

When pornography involves young children, most people will accept that it should be prohibited because of the harm that is being done to persons under the age of consent. It has proved much more difficult to make the same claim for consenting adults. It is hard to show that the actual people who appear in the books, magazines, films, videos and on the internet are being physically harmed, and it is even more difficult to demonstrate that harm results for women as a whole. Very few people would deny that violence against women is abhorrent and an all too common feature of our society, but how much of this is caused by violent pornography? One would have to show that a person who would not otherwise rape or batter females was caused to do so through exposure to material depicting violence to women.

Andrea Dworkin (1981) has attempted to show that harm is caused to women by pornography, but it has proven very difficult to draw a conclusive causal relationship. If pornographers were exhorting their readers to commit violence and rape, the case for prohibition would be much stronger, but they tend not to do this, just as films that depict murder do not actively incite the audience to mimic what they see on the screen. Remember that Mill's formulation of the harm principle suggests only speech that directly harms the rights of others in an illegitimate manner should be banned; finding such material offensive, obscene or outrageous is not sufficient grounds for prohibition. Overall, it seems very difficult to mount a compelling case for banning pornography (except in the case of minors) based on the concept of harm as formulated by Mill.

Another difficult case is hate speech. Most European liberal democracies have limitations on hate speech, but it is debatable whether these can be justified by the harm principle as formulated by Mill. One would have to show that such speech violated rights, directly and in the first instance. A famous example of hate speech is the Nazi march through Skokie, Illinois. In fact, the intention was not to engage in political speech at all, but simply to march through a predominantly Jewish community dressed in storm trooper uniforms and wearing swastikas (although the Illinois Supreme Court interpreted the wearing of swastikas as “symbolic political speech”). It is clear that most people, especially those who lived in Skokie, were outraged and offended by the march, but were they harmed? There was no plan to cause physical injury and the marchers did not intend to damage property.

The main argument against allowing the march, based on the harm principle, was that it would cause harm by inciting opponents of the march to riot. The problem with this claim is that it is the harm that could potentially be done to the people speaking that becomes the focal point and not the harm done to those who are the subject of the hate. To ban speech for this reason, i.e., for the good of the speaker, tends to undermine the basic right to free speech in the first place. If we turn to the local community who were on the wrong end of hate speech we might want to claim that they could be psychologically harmed, but this is more difficult to demonstrate than harm to a person's legal rights. It seems, therefore, that Mill's argument does not allow for state intervention in this case. If we base our defense of speech on the harm principle we are going to have very few sanctions imposed on the spoken and written word. It is only when we can show direct harm to rights, which will almost always mean when an attack is made against a specific individual or a small group of persons, that it is legitimate to impose a sanction. One response is to suggest that the harm principle can be defined in a less stringent manner than Mill's formulation. This is a complicated issue that I cannot delve into here. Suffice it to say that if we can, then more options might become available for prohibiting hate speech and violent pornography.

There are two basic responses to the harm principle as a means of limiting speech. One is that it is too narrow; the other is that it is too broad. This latter view is not often expressed because, as already noted, most people think that free speech should be limited if it does cause illegitimate harm. George Kateb (1996), however, has made an interesting argument that runs as follows. If we want to limit speech because of harm then we will have to ban a lot of political speech. Most of it is useless, a lot of it is offensive, and some of it causes harm because it is deceitful, and because it is aimed at discrediting specific groups. It also undermines democratic citizenship and stirs up nationalism and jingoism, which results in harm to citizens of other countries. Even worse than political discourse, according to Kateb, is religious speech; he claims that a lot of religious speech is hateful, useless, dishonest, and ferments war, bigotry and fundamentalism. It also creates bad self-image and feelings of guilt that can haunt persons throughout their lives. Pornography and hate speech, he claims, cause nowhere near as much harm as political and religious speech. His conclusion is that we do not want to ban these forms of speech and the harm principle, therefore, casts its net too far. Kateb's solution is to abandon the principle in favor of almost unlimited speech.

This is a powerful argument, but there seem to be at least two problems with the analysis. The first is that the harm principle would actually allow religious and political speech for the same reasons that it allows pornography and hate speech, namely that it is not possible to demonstrate that such speech does cause direct harm to rights. I doubt that Mill would support using his arguments about harm to ban political and religious speech. The second problem for Kateb is that if we accept he is right that such speech does cause harm in the sense of violating rights, the correct response is surely to start limiting political and religious speech. If Kateb's argument is sound he has shown that harm is more extensive than we might have thought; he has not demonstrated that the harm principle is invalid.

3. The Offense Principle and Free Speech

The other response to the harm principle is that it does not reach far enough. One of the most impressive arguments for this position comes from Joel Feinberg, who suggests that the harm principle cannot shoulder all of the work necessary for a principle of free speech. In some instances, Feinberg suggests, we also need an offense principle that can act as a guide to public censure. The basic idea is that the harm principle sets the bar too high and that we can legitimately prohibit some forms of expression because they are very offensive. Offending someone is less serious than harming someone, so the penalties imposed should be less severe than those for causing harm. As Feinberg notes, however, this has not always been the case and he cites a number of instances in the U.S. where penalties for sodomy and consensual incest have ranged from twenty years imprisonment to the death penalty. These are victimless crimes and hence the punishment has to have a basis in the supposed offensiveness of the behavior rather than the harm that is caused.

Such a principle is difficult to apply because many people take offense as the result of an overly sensitive disposition, or worse, because of bigotry and unjustified prejudice. At other times some people can be deeply offended by statements that others find mildly amusing. The furore over the Danish cartoons brings this starkly to the fore. Despite the difficulty of applying a standard of this kind, something like the offense principle operates widely in liberal democracies where citizens are penalized for a variety of activities, including speech, that would escape prosecution under the harm principle. Wandering around the local shopping mall naked, or engaging in sexual acts in public places are two obvious examples. Given the specific nature of this essay, I will not delve into the issue of offensive behavior in all its manifestations, and I will limit the discussion to offensive forms of speech. Feinberg suggests that a variety of factors need to be taken into account when deciding whether speech can be limited by the offense principle. These include the extent, duration and social value of the speech, the ease with which it can be avoided, the motives of the speaker, the number of people offended, the intensity of the offense, and the general interest of the community at large.

How does the offense principle help us deal with the issue of pornography? Given the above criteria, Feinberg argues that books should never be banned because the offensive material is easy to avoid. If one has freely decided to read the book for pleasure, the offense principle obviously does not apply, and if one does not want to read it, it is easily avoidable. And if one is unaware of the content and should become offended in the course of reading the text, the solution is simple-one simply closes the book. A similar argument would be applied to pornographic films. The French film Bais-Moi was in essence banned in Australia in 2002 because of its offensive material (it was denied a rating which meant that it could not be shown in cinemas). It would seem, however, that the offense principle outlined by Feinberg would not permit such prohibition because it is very easy to avoid being offended by the film. It should also be legal to advertise the film, but some limits could be placed on the content of the advertisement so that sexually explicit material is not placed on billboards in public places (because these are not easily avoidable). At first glance it might seem strange to have a more stringent speech code for advertisements than for the thing being advertised; the harm principle would not provide the grounds for such a distinction, but it is a logical conclusion of the offense principle.

What of pornography that is extremely offensive because of its violent or degrading content? In this case the offense is more profound: simply knowing that such films exist is enough to deeply offend many people. The difficulty here is that bare knowledge, i.e., being offended by merely knowing that something exists or is taking place, is not as serious as being offended by something that one does not like and that one cannot escape. If we allow that films should be banned because some people are offended, even when they do not have to view them, logical consistency demands that we allow the possibility of prohibiting many forms of expression. Many people find strong attacks on religion, or t.v. shows by religious fundamentalists deeply offensive. Hence, Feinberg argues that even though some forms of pornography are profoundly offensive to a lot of people, they should still be permitted.

Hate speech causes profound and personal offense. The discomfort that is caused to those who are the object of such attacks cannot easily be shrugged off. As in the case of violent pornography, the offense that is caused by the march through Skokie cannot be avoided simply by staying off the streets because the offense is taken over the bare knowledge that the march is taking place. As we have seen, however, bare knowledge does not seem sufficient grounds for prohibition. If we examine some of the other factors regarding offensive speech mentioned above, Feinberg suggests that the march through Skokie does not do very well: the social value of the speech seems to be marginal, the number of people offended will be large, and it is difficult to see how it is in the interests of the community. These reasons also hold for violent pornography.

A key difference, however, is in the intensity of the offense; it is particularly acute with hate speech because it is aimed at a relatively small and specific audience. The motivations of the speakers in the Skokie example seemed to be to incite fear and hatred and to directly insult the members of the community with Nazi symbols. Nor, according to Feinberg, was there any political content to the speech. The distinction between violent pornography and this specific example of hate speech is that a particular group of people were targeted and the message of hate was paraded in such a way that it could not be easily avoided.It is for these reasons that Feinberg suggests hate speech can be limited.

He also claims that when fighting words are used to provoke people who are prevented by law from using a fighting response, the offense is profound enough to allow for prohibition. If pornographers engaged in the same behavior, parading through neighborhoods where they were likely to meet great resistance and cause profound offense, they too should be prevented from doing so. It is clear, therefore, that the crucial component of the offense principle is the avoidability of the offensive material. For the argument to be consistent, it must follow that many forms of hate speech should still be allowed if the offense is easily avoidable. Nazis can still meet in private places, or even in public ones that are easily bypassed. Advertisements for such meetings can be edited (because they are less easy to avoid) but should not be banned.

4. Democracy and Free Speech

Very few liberals take the Millian view that only speech causing direct harm should be prohibited; most support some form of the offense principle. Some are willing to extend the realm of state interference further and argue that hate speech should be banned even if it does not cause harm or unavoidable offense. The reason it should be banned is that it is inconsistent with the underlying values of liberal democracy to brand some citizens as inferior to others on the grounds of race or sexual orientation. The same applies to pornography; it should be prevented because it is incompatible with democratic citizenship to portray women as sexual objects, who are often violently mistreated. Rae Langton, for example, starts from the liberal premise of equal concern and respect and concludes that it is justifiable to remove certain speech protections for pornographers. She avoids basing her argument on harm: “If, for example, there were conclusive evidence linking pornography to violence, one could simply justify a prohibitive strategy on the basis of the harm principle. However, the prohibitive arguments advanced in this article do not require empirical premises as strong as this…they rely instead on the notion of equality” (1990, 313).

Working within the framework of arguments supplied by Ronald Dworkin, who is opposed to prohibitive measures, she tries to demonstrate that egalitarian liberals such as Dworkin, should, in fact, support the prohibition of pornography. She suggests that we have “reason to be concerned about pornography, not because it is morally suspect, but because we care about equality and the rights of women” (1990, 311). This is an approach also taken by Catherine McKinnon (1987). She distinguishes, much like Feinberg, between pornography and erotica. Erotica might be explicit and create sexual arousal, neither of which is grounds for complaint. Pornography would not come under attack if it did the same thing as erotica; the complaint is that it portrays women in a manner that undermines their equal status as citizens: “We define pornography as the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words that also includes women dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; enjoying pain or humiliation or rape; being tied up, cut up, mutilated, bruised, or physically hurt; in postures of sexual submission or servility or display; reduced to body parts, penetrated by objects or animals, or presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture; shown as filthy or inferior; bleeding, bruised or hurt in a context which makes these conditions sexual” (1987, 176).

Langton agrees and concludes that “women as a group have rights against the consumers of pornography, and thereby have rights that are trumps against the policy of permitting pornography…the permissive policy is in conflict with the principle of equal concern and respect, and that women accordingly have rights against it” (1990, 346). Because she is not basing her argument on the harm principle, she does not have to show that women are harmed by pornography. For the argument to be persuasive, however, one has to accept that permitting pornography does mean that women are not treated with equal concern and respect.

To argue the case above, one has to dilute one's support for freedom of expression in favor of other principles, such as equal respect for all citizens. This is a sensible approach according to Stanley Fish. He suggests that the task we face is not to arrive at hard and fast principles that govern all speech. Instead, we have to find a workable compromise that gives due weight to a variety of values. Supporters of this view will tend to remind us that when we are discussing free speech, we are not dealing with speech in isolation; what we are doing is comparing free speech with some other good. For instance, we have to decide whether it is better to place a higher value on speech than on the value of privacy, security, equality, or the prevention of harm.

I suggested early in this essay that to begin from a principle of unregulated speech is to start from a place that itself needs to be vigorously defended rather than simply assumed. Stanley Fish is of a similar temperament and suggests that we need to find a balance in which “we must consider in every case what is at stake and what are the risks and gains of alternative courses of action” (1994, 111). Is speech promoting or undermining our basic values? “If you don't ask this question, or some version of it, but just say that speech is speech and that's it, you are mystifying—presenting as an arbitrary and untheorized fiat—a policy that will seem whimsical or worse to those whose interests it harms or dismisses” (1994, 123).

In other words, there have to be reasons behind the argument to allow speech; we cannot simply say that the First Amendment says it is so, therefore it must be so. The task is not to come up with a principle that always favors expression, but rather, to decide what is good speech and what is bad speech. A good policy “will not assume that the only relevant sphere of action is the head and larynx of the individual speaker” (Fish, 1994, 126). Is it more in keeping with the values of a democratic society, in which every person is deemed equal, to allow or prohibit speech that singles out specific individuals and groups as less than equal? The answer, according to Fish, cannot be settled by simply appealing to a pre-ordained ideal of absolute free speech, because this is a principle that is itself in need of defense. Fish's answer is that, “it depends. I am not saying that First Amendment principles are inherently bad (they are inherently nothing), only that they are not always the appropriate reference point for situations involving the production of speech” (1994, 113). But, all things considered, “I am persuaded that at the present moment, right now, the risk of not attending to hate speech is greater than the risk that by regulating it we will deprive ourselves of valuable voices and insights or slide down the slippery slope towards tyranny. This is a judgement for which I can offer reasons but no guarantees” (1994, 115).

Hence, the boundaries of free speech cannot be set in stone by philosophical principles. It is the world of politics that decides what we can and cannot say, guided but not hidebound by the world of abstract philosophy. Fish suggests that free speech is about political victories and defeats. The very guidelines for marking off protected from unprotected speech are the result of this battle rather than truths in their own right: “No such thing as free (nonideologically constrained) speech; no such thing as a public forum purged of ideological pressures of exclusion” (Fish, 1994, 116). Speech always takes place in an environment of convictions, assumptions, and perceptions i.e., within the confines of a structured world. The thing to do, according to Fish, is get out there and argue for one's position.

We should ask three questions according to Fish: “[g]iven that it is speech, what does it do, do we want it to be done, and is more to be gained or lost by moving to curtail it?” (1994, 127). He suggests that the answers we arrive at will vary according to the context. Free speech will be more limited in the military, where the underlying value is hierarchy and authority, than it will be at a university where one of the main values is the expression of ideas. Even on campus, there will be different levels of appropriate speech. Spouting off at the fountain in the center of campus should be less regulated than what a professor can say during a lecture. It might well be acceptable for me to spend an hour of my time explaining to passers-by why Manchester United is such a great football team but it would be completely inappropriate (and open to censure) to do the same thing when I am supposed to be giving a lecture on Thomas Hobbes. A campus is not simply a “free speech forum but a workplace where people have contractual obligations, assigned duties, pedagogical and administrative responsibilities” (1994,129). Almost all places in which we interact are governed by underlying values and hence speech will have to fit in with these principles: “[r]egulation of free speech is a defining feature of everyday life” (Fish, 1994,129). Thinking of speech in this way removes a lot of the mystique. Whether we should ban hate speech is just another problem along the lines of whether we should allow university professors to talk about football in lectures.

Although Stanley Fish takes some of the mystique away from the value of speech, he still thinks of limitations largely in terms of other regarding consequences. There are arguments, however, that suggest speech can be limited to prevent harm being done to the speaker. The argument here is that the agent might not have a full grasp of the consequences of the action involved (whether it be speech or some other form of behavior) and hence can be prevented from engaging in the act. Arguments used in the Skokie case would fit into this category. Most liberals are wary of such arguments because we are now entering the realm of paternalistic intervention where it is assumed that the state knows better than the individual what is in his or her best interests.

Mill, for example, is an opponent of paternalism generally, but he does believe there are certain instances when intervention is warranted. He suggests that if a public official is certain that a bridge will collapse, he can prevent a person crossing. If, however, there is only a danger that it will collapse the person can be warned but not coerced. The decision here seems to depend on the likelihood of personal injury; the more certain injury becomes, the more legitimate the intervention. Prohibiting freedom of speech on these grounds is very questionable in all but extreme cases (it was not persuasive in the Skokie case) because it is very rare that speech would produce such a clear danger to the individual.

Hence we have exhausted the options that are open to the liberal regarding limitations on free speech and one cannot be classed as a liberal if one is willing to stray further into the arena of state intervention than already discussed. Liberals tend to be united in opposing paternalistic and moralistic justifications for limiting free expression. They have a strong presumption in favor of individual liberty because, it is argued, this is the only way that the autonomy of the individual can be respected. To prohibit speech for reasons other than those already mentioned means that one has to argue that it is permissible to limit speech because of its unsavory content, or as Feinberg puts it, one has to be willing to say that

[i]t can be morally legitimate for the state, by means of the criminal law, to prohibit certain types of action that cause neither harm nor offense to any one, on the grounds that such actions constitute or cause evils of other kinds. ( Harmless Wrongdoing , p. 3)

Acts can be “evil” if they are dangerous to a traditional way of life, because they are immoral, or because they hinder the perfectibility of the human race. Many arguments against pornography take the form that such material is wrong because of the moral harm it does to the consumer. Liberals oppose such views because they are not overly interested in trying to mold the moral character of citizens.

We began this examination of free speech with the harm principle; let us end with it and assess whether it helps us determine the proper limits of free expression. The principle suggests that we need to distinguish between legal sanction and social disapprobation as means of limiting speech. As already noted, the latter does not ban speech but it makes it more uncomfortable to utter unpopular statements. J.S. Mill does not seem to support the imposition of legal penalties unless they are sanctioned by the harm principle. As one would expect, Mill also seems to be worried by the use of social pressure as a means of limiting speech. Chapter III of On Liberty is an incredible assault on social censorship, expressed through the tyranny of the majority, because it produces stunted, pinched, hidebound and withered individuals: “everyone lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship…[i]t does not occur to them to have any inclination except what is customary” (1978, 58). He continues:

the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind…at present individuals are lost in the crowd…the only power deserving the name is that of masses…[i]t does seem, however, that when the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power, the counterpoise and corrective to that tendency would be the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought. (1978, 63-4)

With these comments, and many of a similar ilk, Mill demonstrates his distaste of the apathetic, fickle, tedious, frightened and dangerous majority.

It is quite a surprise, therefore, to find that he also seems to embrace a fairly encompassing offense principle when the sanction does involve social disapprobation:

Again, there are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners and, coming thus within the category of offenses against others, may rightly be prohibited. (1978, 97 [author's emphasis]

Similarly, he states that “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance” (1978, 53). In the latter parts of On Liberty Mill also suggests that distasteful persons can be held in contempt, that we can avoid such persons (as long as we do not parade it), that we can warn others against the persons, and that we can persuade, cajole and remonstrate with those we deem offensive. These actions are legitimate as the free expression of those who happen to be offended as long as they are done as a spontaneous response to the person's faults and not as a form of punishment.

But those who exhibit cruelty, malice, envy, insincerity, resentment and crass egoism are open to the greater sanction of disapprobation as a form of punishment, because these faults are wicked and are other-regarding. It may be true that these faults have an impact on others, but it is difficult to see how acting according to malice,envy or resentment necessarily violates the rights of others. The only way that Mill can make such claims is by expanding his argument to include an offense principle and hence give up on the harm principle as the only legitimate grounds for interference with behavior. Overall, Mill[special-character:#146s arguments about ostracism and disapprobation seem to provide little protection for the individual who may have spoken in a non-harmful manner but who has nevertheless offended the sensibilities of the masses.

Hence we see that one of the great defenders of the harm principle seems to shy away from it at certain crucial points and it is unlikely that a defense of free speech can rest on the principle alone. It does, however, remain an elementary part of the liberal defense of individual freedom.

Liberals tend to defend freedom generally, and free speech in particular, for a variety of reasons beyond the harm principle; speech fosters authenticity, genius, creativity, individuality and human flourishing. Mill tells us specifically that if we ban speech the silenced opinion may be true, or contain a portion of the truth, and that unchallenged opinions become mere prejudices and dead dogmas that are inherited rather than adopted. These are empirical claims that require evidence. Is it likely that we enhance the cause of truth by allowing hate speech or violent and degrading forms of pornography? It is worth pondering the relationship between speech and truth. If we had a graph where one axis was truth and the other was free speech, would we get one extra unit of truth for every extra unit of free speech? How can such a thing even be measured? It is certainly questionable whether arguments degenerate into prejudice if they are not constantly challenged. Devil's advocates are often tedious rather than useful interlocutors. None of this is meant to suggest that free speech is not vitally important; this is, in fact, precisely the reason we need to find good arguments in its favor. But sometimes supporters of free speech, like its detractors, have a tendency to make assertions without providing compelling evidence to back them up.

In a liberal society, we have found that the harm principle provides reasons for limiting free speech when doing so prevents direct harm to rights. This means that very few speech acts should be prohibited. The offense principle has a wider reach than the harm principle, but it still recommends very limited intervention in the realm of free speech. All forms of speech that are found to be offensive but easily avoidable should go unpunished. This means that all forms of pornography and most forms of hate speech will escape punishment. If this argument is acceptable, it seems only logical that we should extend it to other forms of behavior. Public nudity, for example, causes offense to some people, but most of us find it at most a bit embarrassing, and it is avoided by a simple turn of the head. The same goes with nudity, sex, and coarse language on television. Neither the harm or the offense principles as outlined by Mill support criminalizing bigamy or drug use, nor the enforcement of seat belts, crash helmets and the like.

Some argue that speech can be limited for the sake of other liberal values, particularly the concern for democratic equality; the claim is not that speech should always lose out when it clashes with other fundamental principles that underpin modern liberal democracies, but that it should not be automatically privileged. To extend prohibitions on speech and other actions beyond this point requires an argument for a form of legal paternalism that suggests the state should decide what is acceptable for the safety and moral instruction of citizens, even if it means limiting actions that do not cause harm or unavoidable offense to others. It is up to the reader to decide if one of these positions is persuasive. It has certainly been the practice of most societies, even liberal-democratic ones, to impose some paternalistic restrictions on behavior and to limit speech because it causes offense. As we have seen, even Mill seems to back away somewhat from the harm principle. Hence the freedom of expression supported by the harm principle as outlined in Chapter One of On Liberty and by Feinberg's offense principle is still a possibility rather than a reality. It is also up to the reader to decide if it is an appealing possibility.

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[As of January 2008, typing “free speech” on Google will net millions of entries. Hence it is best to simply jump in and see what one can find. It is worth noting that almost all of them are devoted to the promotion of speech in the face of censorship. This reflects a strong bias on the internet in favor of the “slippery slope” view of free speech. There are not many entries where an argument is made for placing limitations on free expression. Wikipedia has a quite a few entries dealing with censorship, free speech, pornography, and crime statistics. Here are a few other cites to get you going.]

  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Free Speech Movement archives (related to Berkeley in the 1960's)
  • Freedom Forum , (a forum dedicated to free speech and a free press)
  • Free Expression , Center for Democracy and Technology, (a website related to the issue of free speech and the internet)
  • Electronic Frontiers Australia (an Australian website on censorship and free speech)
  • The Kellor Center for the Study of the First Amendment

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Why Freedom of Speech is Important

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Published: Sep 7, 2023

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Introduction, protection of democracy, promotion of civic engagement, protection of human rights, promotion of social justice.

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What is the role of free speech in a democratic society?

Book co-edited by prof. geoffrey stone examines evolution, future of first amendment.

Free speech has been an experiment from the start—or at least that’s what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes suggested nearly a century ago in his dissent in  Abrams v. United States , one of the first decisions to interpret and shape the doctrine that would come to occupy a nearly sacred place in America’s national identity.

Since then, First Amendment jurisprudence has stirred America in novel ways, forcing deep introspection about democracy, society and human nature and sometimes straddling the political divide in unexpected fashion. In the past 100 years, free speech protections have ebbed and flowed alongside America’s fears and progress, adapting to changing norms but ultimately growing in reach.

And now, this piece of the American experiment faces a new set of challenges presented by the ever-expanding influence of technology as well as sharp debates over the government’s role in shaping the public forum.

That’s why Geoffrey R. Stone, the Edward Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago Law School, and Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, two of the country’s leading First Amendment scholars, brought together some of the nation’s most influential legal scholars in a new book to explore the evolution—and the future—of First Amendment doctrine in America. 

The Free Speech Century  (Oxford University Press) is a collection of 16 essays by Floyd Abrams, the legendary First Amendment lawyer; David Strauss, the University of Chicago’s Gerald Ratner Distinguished Service Professor of Law; Albie Sachs, former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa; Tom Ginsburg, the University of Chicago’s Leo Spitz Professor of International Law; Laura Weinrib, a University of Chicago Professor of Law; Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School; and others.

“Lee and I were law clerks together at the Supreme Court during the 1972 term,” Stone said. “I was with Justice Brennan and Lee was with Chief Justice Burger. We have both been writing, speaking and teaching about the First Amendment now for 45 years. This was a good time, we decided, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s first decision on the First Amendment with a volume that examines four basic themes: The Nature of First Amendment Jurisprudence, Major Critiques and Controversies over Current Doctrine, The International Impact of our First Amendment Jurisprudence, and the Future of Free Speech in a World of Ever-Changing Technology. Our hope is that this volume will enlighten, inspire and challenge readers to think about the role of free speech in a free and democratic society.”

Stone, JD’71, has spent much of his career examining free speech— a topic he first became passionate about as a University of Law School student.

The University has a long tradition of upholding freedom of expression. UChicago’s influential 2015 report by the Committee on Freedom of Expression, which Stone chaired, became a model for colleges and universities across the country.

The collection takes on pressing issues, such as free expression on university campuses, hate speech, the regulation of political speech and the boundaries of free speech on social media, unpacking the ways in which these issues are shaping the norms of free expression.

One essay, for instance, explores how digital behemoths like Facebook, Twitter and Google became “gatekeepers of free expression”—a shift that contributor Emily Bell, a Columbia University journalism professor, writes “leaves us at a dangerous point in democracy and freedom of the press.” Her article examines foreign interference in the 2016 election and explores some of the questions that have emerged since, such as how to balance traditional ideas of a free press with the rights of citizens to hear accurate information in an information landscape that is now dominated by social media.

Technology, the editors write, has presented some of the most significant questions that courts, legal scholars, and the American public will face in the coming decades.

“While vastly expanding the opportunities to participate in public discourse, contemporary means of communication have also arguably contributed to political polarization, foreign influence in our democracy, and the proliferation of ‘fake’ news,” Stone writes in the introduction. “To what extent do these concerns pose new threats to our understanding of ‘the freedom of speech, and of the press’? To what extent do they call for serious reconsideration of some central doctrines and principles on which our current First Amendment jurisprudence is based?”

In another essay, Strauss, an expert in constitutional law, examines the principles established in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case,  New York Times Co. v. United States.  The landmark ruling blocked an attempt at prior restraint by the Nixon administration, allowing the  New York Times  and  Washington Post  to publish a classified report that reporters had obtained about America’s role in Vietnam. The threat to national security wasn’t sufficiently immediate or specific to warrant infringing on the papers’ right to publish, the Court said at the time.

But today’s world is different, Strauss argues. It is easier to leak large amounts of sensitive information—and publication is no longer limited to a handful of media companies with strict ethical guidelines. What’s more, the ease with which information can be shared—digitally as opposed to carefully sneaking papers in batches from locked cabinets to a photocopier, as military analyst Daniel Ellsberg did when leaking the Pentagon Papers—means that a larger number of people can act as leakers. That can include those who don’t fully understand the information they are sharing, which many have argued was the case when former IT contractor Edward Snowden allegedly leaked millions of documents from the National Security Agency in 2013.

“[T]he stakes are great on both sides,” Strauss writes, “and the world has changed in ways that make it important to rethink the way we deal with the problem.”

Ultimately, the health of the First Amendment will depend on two things, Bollinger writes: a continued understanding that free speech plays a critical role in democratic society—and a recognition that the judicial branch doesn’t claim sole responsibility for achieving that vision. The legislative and executive branches can support free speech as well.

What’s more, modern-day challenges do not have to result in an erosion of protections, Bollinger argues.

“[O]ur most memorable and consequential decisions under the First Amendment have emerged in times of national crises, when passions are at their peak and when human behavior is on full display at its worst and at its best, in times of war and when momentous social movements are on the rise,” he writes. “Freedom of speech and the press taps into the most essential elements of life—how we think, speak, communicate, and live within the polity. It is no wonder that we are drawn again and again into its world.”

—Adapted from an article that first appeared on the University of Chicago Law School website.

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The Free Speech Century


The Free Speech Century

Geoffrey R. Stone, Lee C. Bollinger

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The Problem of Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation

By The New York Times Magazine

Free Speech Will Save Our Democracy

freedom of speech solution essay

The First Amendment in the age of disinformation.

By Emily Bazelon

This summer, a bipartisan group of about a hundred academics, journalists, pollsters, former government officials and former campaign staff members convened for an initiative called the Transition Integrity Project. By video conference, they met to game out hypothetical threats to the November election and a peaceful transfer of power if the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, were to win. Dividing into Team Trump and Team Biden, the group ran various scenarios about counting ballots and the litigation and protests and violence that could follow a contested election result. The idea was to test the machinery of American democracy.

Describing the results in a Sept. 3 essay in The Washington Post, one of the project’s organizers, Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and Pentagon official during the Obama administration, mentioned a situation in which Biden won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College. In that hypothetical case, “desperate Democrats” on Team Biden considered encouraging California and the Pacific Northwest to threaten secession to pressure Republicans to expand the size of the Senate.

The next day, Michael Anton, a former national security adviser to President Trump, published an article about the Transition Integrity Project called “The Coming Coup?” Democrats were “laying the groundwork for revolution,” Anton wrote without evidence in The American Mind, a publication of the Claremont Institute. He warned that ballots harvested “lawfully or not” could tip close states to Biden.

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By mid-September, Anton’s article was one of the most-shared links in extremist online communities, according to a newsletter published by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank based in London. Dan Bongino, a podcaster and Trump supporter, covered Anton’s essay and the imagined coup in several videos, with one tagged, “They are telling you what they are going to do!” Just two of the videos pulled in at least six million views.

On Sept. 9, a post appeared on Revolver News, a new right-wing website. It claimed without evidence that one participant in the Transition Integrity Project, Norm Eisen, who served as a counsel for the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee during the impeachment proceedings, was a “central operative” in a “color revolution” against Trump, a term for uprisings that have toppled governments in countries like Georgia and Ukraine. Trump tweeted in praise of Revolver News a few days later.

On Sept. 15, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson had on his show Darren Beattie, a former Trump speechwriter who was fired after reports surfaced that he had attended a gathering of white nationalists in 2016 and who warned about Eisen and a color revolution. Two days later, Trump tweeted that “the Nov 3rd Election result may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED, which is what some want,” generating tens of thousands of interactions on Twitter and a round of news coverage about one of the fears that the Transition Integrity Project sought to address — that Trump could refuse to accept the results of the election.

All told, in September the coup fabrication was shared more than 100,000 times from public Facebook pages, generating many millions of interactions and video views, according to the data source CrowdTangle. Alongside Bongino and Fox News, there were small drivers of traffic like Long Islanders for Trump, the Silent Majority Group and a county Republican organization in Oregon, as well as private groups with thousands of members that CrowdTangle doesn’t capture. By the end of the month, the fraction of Republicans who were not “confident” that the election “will be conducted in a fair and equal way” hit 65 percent, higher than it was for independents or Democrats, in an NBC News/SurveyMonkey tracking poll. This month, Trump retweeted a response to a Republican member of Congress, Mark Green, who suggested that Speaker Nancy Pelosi could stage a coup.

The United States is in the middle of a catastrophic public-health crisis caused by the spread of the coronavirus. But it is also in the midst of an information crisis caused by the spread of viral disinformation, defined as falsehoods aimed at achieving a political goal. (“Misinformation” refers more generally to falsehoods.) Seven months into the pandemic in America, with Trump leading the way, coronavirus skeptics continue to mock masks and incorrectly equate the virus with the flu. Throughout the campaign season, Trump and other Republicans have promoted a false narrative of widespread voter fraud, which Attorney General William Barr, as the country’s top law-enforcement official, furthered in a September interview on CNN when he said someone in Texas was indicted for filling out 1,700 ballots for other people, which never happened. As fires tore through California and the Pacific Northwest last month, the president cast doubt on the science behind global warming, and people in Oregon defied evacuation orders because of false rumors that antifa, a loose term for left-wing activists, was setting the blazes and looting empty homes.

The conspiracy theories, the lies, the distortions, the overwhelming amount of information, the anger encoded in it — these all serve to create chaos and confusion and make people, even nonpartisans, exhausted, skeptical and cynical about politics. The spewing of falsehoods isn’t meant to win any battle of ideas. Its goal is to prevent the actual battle from being fought, by causing us to simply give up. And the problem isn’t just the internet. A working paper from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard released early this month found that effective disinformation campaigns are often an “elite-driven, mass-media led process” in which “social media played only a secondary and supportive role.” Trump’s election put him in the position to operate directly through Fox News and other conservative media outlets, like Rush Limbaugh’s talk-radio show, which have come to function “in effect as a party press,” the Harvard researchers found.

The false story about Democrats plotting a coup spread through a typical feedback loop. Links from Fox News hosts and other right-wing figures aligned with Trump, like Bongino, often dominate the top links in Facebook’s News Feed for likes, comments and shares in the United States. Though Fox News is far smaller than Facebook, the social media platform has helped Fox attain the highest weekly reach, offline and online combined, of any single news source in the United States, according to a 2020 report by the Reuters Institute.

It’s an article of faith in the United States that more speech is better and that the government should regulate it as little as possible. But increasingly, scholars of constitutional law, as well as social scientists, are beginning to question the way we have come to think about the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. They think our formulations are simplistic — and especially inadequate for our era. Censorship of external critics by the government remains a serious threat under authoritarian regimes. But in the United States and other democracies, there is a different kind of threat, which may be doing more damage to the discourse about politics, news and science. It encompasses the mass distortion of truth and overwhelming waves of speech from extremists that smear and distract.

This concern spans the ideological spectrum. Along with disinformation campaigns, there is the separate problem of “troll armies” — a flood of commenters, often propelled by bots — that “aim to discredit or to destroy the reputation of disfavored speakers and to discourage them from speaking again,” Jack Goldsmith, a conservative law professor at Harvard, writes in an essay in “The Perilous Public Square,” a book edited by David E. Pozen that was published this year. This tactic, too, may be directed by those in power. Either way, it’s often grimly effective at muting critical voices. And yet as Tim Wu, a progressive law professor at Columbia, points out in the same book, the “use of speech as a tool to suppress speech is, by its nature, something very challenging for the First Amendment to deal with.”

These scholars argue something that may seem unsettling to Americans: that perhaps our way of thinking about free speech is not the best way. At the very least, we should understand that it isn’t the only way. Other democracies, in Europe and elsewhere, have taken a different approach. Despite more regulations on speech, these countries remain democratic; in fact, they have created better conditions for their citizenry to sort what’s true from what’s not and to make informed decisions about what they want their societies to be. Here in the United States, meanwhile, we’re drowning in lies.

Facts and transparency are the intended pillars of the modern First Amendment. Since the nation’s founding, the Constitution has guaranteed that the government “shall make no law” abridging “the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” For more than a century, however, these limits on the state’s power were worth little. From 1798 to 1801, more than two dozen people, including several newspaper editors, were prosecuted by the administration of President John Adams under the Alien and Sedition Acts, which made “malicious writing” a crime. Protesters were also jailed for criticizing the government during World War I.

In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. invoked the First Amendment to dispute the legality of prosecuting five anarchists for distributing leaflets that called for workers to strike at munitions factories. “The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas,” Holmes wrote.

freedom of speech solution essay

One of Holmes’s chief influences was the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, who argued in his foundational 1859 treatise “On Liberty” that it is wrong to censor ideas, because knowledge arises from the “clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” In the process, the capacity of citizens to weigh policy questions is strengthened. The government should not censor false or harmful speech because its judgment might be wrong.

Based on Mill’s conception of free speech, the political theorist Alexander Meiklejohn argued for elevating the right above other rights, as the foundation of democracy, in his 1948 book “Free Speech and its Relation to Self-Government.” Mill and Meiklejohn stand for the proposition that unfettered debate — Holmes’s “free trade in ideas,” or the “marketplace of ideas,” coined by Justice William O. Douglas in 1953 — furthers the bedrock values of the pursuit of truth, individual autonomy and democratic self-governance.

In the 1960s, based on these principles, Supreme Court majorities laid the cornerstones of modern American free-speech protections. In the case Brandenburg v. Ohio, the justices struck down an Ohio law used to arrest a Ku Klux Klan leader for speaking at a rally, barring the government from punishing speech unless it encouraged and was likely to cause “imminent lawless action,” like a riot. In the foundational case New York Times v. Sullivan, the court made it difficult for a public figure to sue a newspaper for libel that included false statements. Errors were “inevitable in free debate,” the court said, and “must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the ‘breathing space’ that they ‘need,’” quoting a previous ruling.

It’s a fundamentally optimistic vision: Good ideas win. The better argument will prove persuasive.

There’s a countertradition, however. It’s alert to the ways in which demagogic leaders or movements can use propaganda, an older term that can be synonymous with disinformation. A crude authoritarian censors free speech. A clever one invokes it to play a trick, twisting facts to turn a mob on a subordinated group and, in the end, silence as well as endanger its members. Looking back at the rise of fascism and the Holocaust in her 1951 book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” the political philosopher Hannah Arendt focused on the use of propaganda to “make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism.”

In other words, good ideas do not necessarily triumph in the marketplace of ideas. “Free speech threatens democracy as much as it also provides for its flourishing,” the philosopher Jason Stanley and the linguist David Beaver argue in their forthcoming book, “The Politics of Language.”

Concerns about the harm of unfettered speech have flared on the left in the United States since the 1970s. In that decade, some feminists, led by the legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon and the activist Andrea Dworkin, fought to limit access to pornography, which they viewed as a form of subordination and a violation of women’s civil rights. In the 1980s and ’90s, scholars developing critical race theory, which examines the role of law in maintaining race-based divisions of power, called for a reading of the First Amendment that recognized racist hate speech as an injury that courts could redress.

But the Supreme Court has strongly protected hate speech. In 1992, the Supreme Court unanimously said that the City of St. Paul could not specially punish, as a hate crime, the public burning of a cross or the display of a swastika. In 2011, in an 8-to-1 vote, the court said the government could not stop members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas from picketing military funerals across the nation to protest what they perceived to be the government’s tolerance of homosexuality by holding signs like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Speech can “inflict great pain,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course — to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

In 2012, by a 6-to-3 vote in United States v. Alvarez, the court provided some constitutional protection for an individual’s intentional lies, at least as long as they don’t cause serious harm. The majority said that the “mere potential” for government censorship casts “a chill the First Amendment cannot permit if free speech, thought and discourse are to remain a foundation of our freedom.”

The Supreme Court has also taken the First Amendment in another direction that had nothing to do with individual rights, moving from preserving a person’s freedom to dissent to entrenching the power of wealthy interests. In the 1970s, the court started protecting corporate campaign spending alongside individual donations. Legally speaking, corporate spending on speech that was related to elections was akin to the shouting of protesters. This was a “radical break with the history and traditions of U.S. law,” the Harvard law professor John Coates wrote in a 2015 article published by the University of Minnesota Law School. Over time, the shift helped to fundamentally alter the world of politics. In the 2010 Citizens United decision, the court’s conservative majority opened the door to allowing corporations (and unions) to spend unlimited amounts on political advocacy, as long as they donated to interest groups and political-action committees rather than to campaigns.

By requiring the state to treat alike categories of speakers — corporations and individuals — the Supreme Court began to go far beyond preventing discrimination based on viewpoint or the identity of an individual speaker. “Once a defense of the powerless, the First Amendment over the last hundred years has mainly become a weapon of the powerful,” MacKinnon, now a law professor at the University of Michigan, wrote in “The Free Speech Century,” a 2018 essay collection. Instead of “radicals, artists and activists, socialists and pacifists, the excluded and the dispossessed,” she wrote, the First Amendment now serves “authoritarians, racists and misogynists, Nazis and Klansmen, pornographers and corporations buying elections.” In the same year, Justice Elena Kagan warned that the court’s conservative majority was “weaponizing the First Amendment” in the service of corporate interests, in a dissent to a ruling against labor unions.

If Trump’s deeply conservative third Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, is confirmed, the court will most likely become more committed to its path of using the First Amendment to empower corporations. Somewhere along the way, the conservative majority has lost sight of an essential point: The purpose of free speech is to further democratic participation. “The crucial function of protecting speech is to give persons the sense that the government is theirs, which we might call democratic legitimation,” says the Yale law professor Robert Post. “Campbell Soup Company can’t experience democratic legitimation. But a person can. If we lose one election, we can win the next one. We can continue to identify with the democratic process so long as we’re given the opportunity to shape public opinion. That’s why we have the First Amendment.”

On May 16, 2017, Fox News posted an article that drew on a report from the local Fox station in Washington, laying out a conspiracy theory about the death of Seth Rich, a staff member at the Democratic National Committee who was apparently the victim of an attempted street robbery. The story falsely implicated Rich in the Russian hacking of committee emails, which were released by WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential campaign. Sean Hannity amplified the lies about Rich on his Fox News show that night and the former House speaker Newt Gingrich repeated them on “Fox & Friends” a few days later. The falsehoods spread to conspiracy websites and social media. Fox News retracted its false report online a week later, but “Fox & Friends” did not; Hannity said on his radio show, “I retracted nothing.” An ABC affiliate owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative owner of local TV stations, then aired another report on the Rich conspiracy theory, which the local Fox station covered, giving it life for another news cycle.

In a 2018 book, “Network Propaganda,” Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard, and two researchers there, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts, mapped the spread of political disinformation in the United States from 2015 to 2018. Analyzing the hyperlinks of four million news articles, the three authors found that the conservative media did not counter lies and distortions, but rather recycled them from one outlet to the next, on TV and radio and through like-minded websites.

The dearth of competition for factual accuracy among conservative outlets leaves their audiences vulnerable to disinformation even if the mainstream news media combats it. People are more likely to believe fact-checking from a source that speaks against its apparent political interest, research shows. In the eyes of many conservatives, news outlets like The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN do not fill that role when they challenge a story that Trump and Fox News promote.

Mainstream publications also make mistakes or run with a hyped narrative. The repeated front-page coverage that The New York Times gave to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, after breaking the story, shadowed her defeat in 2016. It was also skewered by press critics — an example of how competing outlets challenge and correct one another (even if the system sometimes fails in real time). This “reality-check dynamic” in the mainstream and left-leaning media, Benkler, Faris and Roberts write, “still leaves plenty of room for partisanship.” But the standards of journalism, however flawed, appear to “significantly constrain disinformation.”

In the past, ensuring a vibrant free press made up of competing outlets was an express aim of federal policy. From the founding until the early 20th century, Congress lowered the cost of starting and running a newspaper or magazine by setting low postage rates for mailed copies. The advent of radio raised questions about how to foster competition and public access. “Lawmakers of both parties recognized the danger that an information chokehold poses to democratic self-government,” says Ellen P. Goodman, a law professor at Rutgers University. “So policymakers adopted structures to ensure diversity of ownership, local control of media and public broadcasting.”

In 1927, when Congress created the licensing system for exclusive rights to the broadcast spectrum, so that radio broadcasters could secure a place on the dial, lawmakers told broadcasters to act “as if people of a community should own a station.” The 1934 Communications Act similarly required anyone with a broadcast license to operate in the “public interest” and allocated spectrum based on ensuring that local communities had their own stations. In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission established the fairness doctrine, which interpreted operating in the public interest to require broadcasters to cover major public-policy debates and present multiple points of view. And in 1967, Congress created and funded the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, whose mission is to “promote an educated and informed civil society,” and reserved broadcast spectrum for local NPR and PBS stations.

During these decades, broadcasters were held to a standard of public trusteeship, in which the right to use the airwaves came with a mandate to provide for democratic discourse. Broadcasters made money — lots of it — but profit wasn’t their only reason for existing. “The networks had a public-service obligation, and when they went to get their licenses renewed, the news divisions fulfilled that,” says Matthew Gentzkow, an economist at Stanford who studies trust in information. The model coincided with a rare period, in American history, of relatively high levels of trust in media and low levels of political polarization.

But public trusteeship for broadcast and diverse ownership began to unravel with the libertarian shift of the Reagan era. In the mid-1980s, the administration waived the F.C.C. rule that barred a single entity from owning a TV station and a daily newspaper in the same local market to allow Rupert Murdoch to continue to own The New York Post and The Boston Herald after he bought his first broadcast TV stations in New York and Boston.

The F.C.C. repealed the fairness doctrine, which had required broadcasters to include multiple points of view, in 1987. “When that went, that was the beginning of the complete triumph, in media, of the libertarian view of the First Amendment,” the Rutgers law professor Goodman says.

Murdoch and Roger Ailes, a former Nixon campaign adviser, started Fox News as the first TV network to cultivate a conservative audience in 1996. A decade later, studies showed what has become known as the Fox News Effect : After a local cable system adds Fox News to the lineup, voters in the vicinity tend to shift toward Republican candidates. As Trump’s ally and frequent platform, Fox News can help shift its audience’s behavior toward his views even when they may risk public health. In a study this year, a team of economists, controlling for other factors, found that communities with higher numbers of Fox News viewers were less likely to comply with stay-at-home orders to fight coronavirus.

In the early ’90s, David D. Smith, a conservative who inherited the Sinclair Broadcast Group from his father, bought a second local TV station in Pittsburgh, despite a federal regulation barring the ownership of more than one station in a local market. In Baltimore, Sinclair got around the same rule by creating another company, Glencairn, controlled by Smith’s mother and an employee. Sinclair is growing as local journalism is hollowing out : About 1,800 metro and community newspapers have closed or merged since 2004. Sinclair is now the largest station owner in swing states.

More than three-quarters of Americans say they trust local TV news, according to a recent survey by the Poynter Institute. Sinclair owns local affiliates of CBS, ABC, NBC and the CW, as well as Fox, so its partisan leanings aren’t immediately apparent. But they’re there. “We are here to deliver your message — period.” Smith reportedly told Trump during the 2016 campaign. In early 2018, dozens of Sinclair newscasters across the country echoed Trump’s diatribes against the press by reading from the same script warning of “fake stories” from “some members” of the media. (Deadspin captured the repetition of the script in an eerie video montage. ) In July, Sinclair released online an interview with Judy Mikovits, a conspiracy theorist who has accused Dr. Anthony Fauci of manufacturing the coronavirus. When the segment drew criticism, the company canceled the planned on-air broadcast but called itself “a supporter of free speech and a marketplace of ideas and viewpoints, even if incredibly controversial.”

The founding ethos of the internet was to treat sources of information equally. Cut loose from traditional gatekeepers — the publishing industry and the government — the web would provide the world’s first neutral delivery of content. But in short order, the libertarian principles that weakened media regulation allowed a few American tech companies to become the new gatekeepers. The United States gave platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter free rein to grow. Google bought YouTube. Facebook bought Instagram and WhatsApp.

The business model for the dominant platforms depends on keeping users engaged online. Content that prompts hot emotion tends to succeed at generating clicks and shares, and that’s what the platforms’ algorithms tend to promote. Lies go viral more quickly than true statements, research shows.

In many ways, social media sites today function as the public square. But legally speaking, internet platforms can restrict free speech far more than the government can. They’re like malls, where private owners police conduct. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have guidelines that moderate content that could drive away users, including spam and pornography, and also certain forms of harassment, hate speech, fake engagement or misrepresentation and violent extremism. But for years, the companies enforced these rules subjectively and unevenly — allowing for explosions of anti-Semitic memes and targeted harassment of women, for example.

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter have each said that their sites cannot be “arbiters of truth” and make important exceptions to their guidelines. Facebook leaves up content, including hate speech, that breaks the rules when it decides it’s newsworthy, because it’s a post from a politician or a public figure. “In the same way that news outlets will report what a politician says,” Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post in June, “we think people should generally be able to see it for themselves on our platforms.”

Social media sites have leaned on First Amendment principles to keep secret the identities of people who appear to abuse their services. Following the right-wing news coverage of the conspiracy theory about Seth Rich, his brother subpoenaed Twitter, in a defamation suit against media companies, to uncover the name of the person behind the Twitter account @whysprtech, alleging that person sent to Fox News a forged F.B.I. document about Rich’s case. Twitter fought back in court, saying that unmasking @whysprtech would chill speech by violating what the platform’s lawyers called a constitutional right to be anonymous. This month, a judge ordered Twitter to reveal information that could unmask the person or people behind @whysprtech.

Over the past two months, as Trump attacked mail-in voting and the validity of the November election results , Facebook, YouTube and Twitter said they would impose a few more controls on speech about voting. The platforms expanded or reaffirmed their policies for removing a narrow category of content that misleads people about how to vote — for example, by saying you can fill out a ballot online.

In September, Facebook and YouTube joined Twitter in adding labels to content that a fact check has noted could undermine the results of the election or mislead about the results. (Facebook contracts with an independent fact-checking network, which includes both The Associated Press and Check Your Fact, a subsidiary of the right-wing outlet The Daily Caller. Twitter does fact-checking internally. YouTube relies on a network of news organizations, including PolitiFact and The Washington Post Fact Checker.)

Fact-checking and labeling are First Amendment-friendly responses. They counter false speech with more speech, at the initiative of a private company, not the direction of the government. Today the research consensus among social scientists is that some fact-checking methods significantly reduce the prevalence of false beliefs. In print or on TV, journalists can use headlines or chyrons to provide context and debunking in real time — though they sometimes fail to do so.

Until very recently, Facebook and Twitter used mild labeling language. On Sept. 28, Trump tweeted: “The Ballots being returned to States cannot be accurately counted. Many things are already going very wrong!” In small blue print at the bottom of the post, Twitter added a warning symbol — a small exclamation point in a circle — along with the text “Learn how voting by mail is safe and secure.” Facebook labeled the same post, suggesting that voters visit its “Voting Information Center” without including a warning symbol.

Kate Starbird, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Washington who tracks social media disinformation, called Facebook’s label “worse than nothing.” Adding a weak label to a Trump post mostly has the effect of “giving it an attention bump by creating a second news cycle about Republican charges of bias in content moderation,” says Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and co-director of the university’s Program on Democracy and the Internet.

Facebook has since updated its labels, based on tests and feedback, including from civil rights leaders. “The labels we have now, we have far more than we used to,” says Monika Bickert, Facebook’s vice president for content policy. “They’ve gotten stronger. But I would expect we’ll continue to refine them as we keep seeing what’s working.” Facebook updated the label on Trump’s Sept. 28 tweet to “Both voting in person and voting by mail have a long history of trustworthiness in the US and the same is predicted this year. Source: Bipartisan Policy Center.” On an Oct. 6 Trump post with more falsehoods about voting, Facebook added an additional sentence to that label: “Voter fraud is extremely rare across voting methods.” (Other labels, though, remain mild, and plenty of misleading content related to voting remains unlabeled.)

Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America, a nonprofit media watchdog group, finds the changes useful but frustratingly late. “We went from them refusing to touch any of the content, an entire ocean of disinformation on voting and election integrity, and dismissal of any efforts to address that — to this. They let it metastasize, and now they start doing the thing they could have done all along.” Carusone also points out that independent researchers don’t have access to data that would allow them to study key questions about the companies’ claims of addressing disinformation. How prevalent are disinformation and hate speech on the platforms? Are people who see Facebook, Twitter and YouTube’s information labels less likely to share false and misleading content? Which type of warning has the greatest impact?

Twitter and Facebook reduce the spread of some false posts, but during this election season, Starbird has watched false content shared or retweeted tens of thousands of times or more before companies make any visible effort to address it. “Currently, we are watching disinformation go viral & trying desperately to refute it,” she tweeted in September. “By the time we do — even in cases where platforms end up taking action — the false info/narrative has already done its damage.”

Facebook came under intense criticism for the role it played in the last presidential race. During the 2016 campaign, Facebook later reported, Russian operatives spent about $100,000 to buy some 3,000 ads meant to benefit Trump largely by sowing racial division. By choosing Facebook, a small investment had an outsize payoff as the site’s users circulated the planted ads to their followers. “Facebook’s scale means we’ve concentrated our risk,” says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College. “When they’re wrong, they’re wrong on a national or global scale.”

Facebook and YouTube have treated political ads as protected speech, allowing them to include false and misleading information. Online ads — like direct mail and robocalls — can make setting the record straight very difficult. Online advertisers can use microtargeting to pinpoint the segments of users they want to reach. “Misleading TV ads can be countered and fact-checked,” while a misleading message in a microtargeted ad “remains hidden from challenge by the other campaign or the media,” Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of the 2017 book “Twitter and Tear Gas,” wrote in a prescient 2012 Op-Ed in The New York Times.

In this election season, domestic groups are adopting similar tactics. This summer, the Trump-aligned group FreedomWorks, which was seeded by the billionaire Koch brothers, promoted 150 Facebook ads directing people to a page with a picture of LeBron James. The image was accompanied by a quote, in which James denounced poll closures as racist, that was repurposed to deceive people into thinking he was discouraging voting by mail. After The Washington Post reported on it, Facebook removed the page for violating its voter-interference policy, but only after the ads were seen hundreds of thousands of times.

Coordinated fake accounts posting about the election have also shown up on Twitter. In August, NBC News reported on a series of viral tweets that appeared to be from Black men who said they were lifelong Democrats and planned to leave the party. The accounts were fake; one used a stock photo of a Black man, and the other used a photo of a Dutch model. Twitter eventually took them down. The company recently said that as of Oct. 20, it is making more changes to protect the election, including temporarily warning users if they try to share content that the platform has flagged as false.

Another reason political ads are controversial online is that campaigns or groups that pay for them don’t have to disclose their identities, as they’re required to do on TV and radio and in print. “The First Amendment value of individual autonomy means we should know who is speaking to us and why,” the Rutgers law professor Goodman argues. But online, neither the Supreme Court nor Congress has stepped in to require disclosure.

Twitter banned political ads a year ago. This month, Facebook said it would temporarily ban political ads after the polls close on Nov. 3. Last month, the company took another step to protect the U.S. election. It restricted its Messenger app by preventing mass forwarding of private messages, which has done terrible damage in other countries. For several years, falsehoods that were forwarded from person to person, and from group to group, in private encrypted messages on WhatsApp sparked riots and fatal beatings against religious and ethnic minorities in countries including Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In 2018, Facebook started limiting the forwarding of any post on WhatsApp to 20 people; now the limit is five for WhatsApp and Messenger.

As social media companies have tried to address the spread of disinformation and other toxic speech, conservatives including Trump have hurled a series of accusations that the companies are showing bias against them. In May, after Twitter first added labels that read “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” to two Trump tweets predicting mass ballot fraud, the president signed a largely symbolic executive order directed at social media sites, calling the platforms’ labels “selective censorship that is harming our national discourse.”

In February, The Washington Post reported on an internal effort by Facebook (called Project P, for propaganda) after the 2016 election to take down pages that spread Russian disinformation. The project foundered after Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president for global public policy, reportedly said at a high-level meeting, “We can’t remove all of it because it will disproportionately affect conservatives,” according to a source at Facebook who spoke to The Post anonymously. In an email this month, a Facebook representative said Kaplan’s point about Project P was that the company “needed a clear basis for the removal because the impact would be felt more on the right than the left, and we would face criticism.”

Kaplan has deep Republican ties. He was present at the so-called Brooks Brothers Riot in Florida shortly after the contested presidential election in 2000, when a group of Republicans in suits succeeded in stopping a recount of ballots to the benefit of their candidate, George W. Bush. In 2018, he sat behind his close friend Brett Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court. (Kaplan apologized after some of his employees objected that his appearance seemed like a Facebook endorsement of Kavanaugh.)

Facebook employees have also raised questions about whether Facebook’s misinformation policy is enforced evenhandedly. According to the policy, publications and individual users will receive a “misinformation strike” for a post that a fact checker determines is false or misleading. A publication with multiple misinformation strikes in 90 days is supposed to lose its eligibility to be in Facebook News, a curated section that generates traffic for publications. (The New York Times is in Facebook News.) In August, Buzzfeed reported that at an all-hands meeting the previous month, Facebook employees asked Zuckerberg how Breitbart News remained a news partner after sharing the video in which doctors called hydroxychloroquine “a cure for Covid” and said “you don’t need a mask.” Through Breitbart’s page, the video racked up more than 20 million views in several hours before Facebook removed it. Zuckerberg said Breitbart didn’t have a second strike within the 90-day period.

But in an internal message group, employees wrote that misinformation strikes against Breitbart had been “cleared without explanation,” and gathered evidence of “preferential treatment” to help conservative accounts in these situations, according to Buzzfeed. One of the employees was later fired; Facebook said it was because “he broke the rules.” When I spoke to Bickert, she said Breitbart was cleared by her team because of “glitches” in Facebook’s system, such as not accurately notifying the publisher. This has happened “to publishers on the left and the right,” Bickert said.

In the last two years, employees have left Facebook sounding an alarm. In 2019, Yael Eisenstat resigned from her role as Facebook’s head of elections integrity after failing to persuade the company to combat misinformation in political ads. In a November op-ed in The Washington Post, she called on the company to stop profiting “from providing politicians with potent information-warfare tools.” Resigning from Facebook this summer, two software engineers, Max Wang and Ashok Chandwaney, separately accused the company of “profiting from hatred.” Sophie Zhang, a data scientist who was fired from Facebook in September, wrote a 6,600-word memo with details about disinformation campaigns she found to influence elections in countries including Ecuador, Honduras and Ukraine. “I have blood on my hands,” she wrote.

John Stuart Mill wrote a century and a half ago that “All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.” There is still plenty of reason to believe that moving away from the American free-speech tradition could make us too quick to dismiss apparently false ideas that turn out to have merit — and that airing them is the only way to find out. At Howard University’s commencement in 2016, President Barack Obama warned students against pushing colleges to disinvite speakers, “no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.” Instead, he told them, “beat them on the battlefield of ideas.”

In the last several years, however, some liberals have lost patience with rehashing debates about ideas they find toxic. The American Civil Liberties Union celebrated its decision in 1977 to defend the free speech rights of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill. Forty years later, some lawyers and board members for the A.C.L.U. objected when the group defended the neo-Nazis who demonstrated in Charlottesville, Va.

Cancel culture — subjecting people to professional or social penalties for their views — has unsettled universities and workplaces. Liberal students have shouted down conservative speakers including Charles Murray and Christina Hoff Sommers. Conservatives have also condemned speakers and academics, for example, for supporting Palestinian rights. The New York Times’s decision this summer to publish an Op-Ed in which Senator Tom Cotton called for sending in federal troops to crack down on protests against the police roiled the paper’s staff. Citing a “significant breakdown in our editing processes,” the publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, announced the resignation of the editorial-page editor, James Bennet.

The First Amendment doesn’t have a formal role in these situations — newspapers and universities can decide which views they want to promote — but the principle that it’s paramount to protect dissident speech makes them difficult to untangle. If people have the right to peacefully protest against the police, don’t neo-Nazis have the same right to peacefully demonstrate? Why is Tom Cotton’s Op-Ed beyond the pale but not an October Op-Ed by Regina Ip, a legislator in Hong Kong, who defended police officers’ filling the streets and arresting hundreds of pro-democracy demonstrators?

The principle of free speech has a different shape and meaning in Europe. For the European Union, as well as democracies like Canada and New Zealand, free speech is not an absolute right from which all other freedoms flow. The European high courts have allowed states to punish incitements of racial hatred or denial of the Holocaust, for example. Germany and France have laws that are designed to prevent the widespread dissemination of hate speech and election-related disinformation.“Much of the recent authoritarian experience in Europe arose out of democracy itself,” explains Miguel Poiares Maduro, board chairman of the European Digital Media Observatory, a project on online disinformation at the European University Institute. “The Nazis and others were originally elected. In Europe, there is historically an understanding that democracy needs to protect itself from anti-democratic ideas. It’s because of the different democratic ethos of Europe that Europe has accepted more restrictions on speech.”

After World War II, European countries also promoted free speech, and the flow of reliable information, by making large investments in public broadcasting. Today France TV, the BBC, ARD in Germany and similar broadcasters in the Netherlands and Scandinavia continue to score high in public trust and audience share. Researchers in Germany and France who have mapped the spread of political lies and conspiracy theories there say they have found pockets online, especially on YouTube, but nothing like the large-scale feedback loops in the United States that include major media outlets and even the president.

The difference between the political-speech traditions of the United States and Europe was acutely apparent in the American and French presidential elections of 2016 and 2017. When Russian operatives hacked into the computers of the Democratic National Committee, they gave their stolen trove of D.N.C. emails to WikiLeaks, which released the emails in batches to do maximum damage to Clinton and her party in the months before the election. The news media covered the stolen emails extensively, providing information so the public could weigh it, even if a foreign adversary had planted it.

The French press responded otherwise to a Russian hack in May 2017. Two days before a national election, the Russians posted online thousands of emails from En Marche!, the party of Emmanuel Macron, who was running for president. France, like several other democracies, has a blackout law that bars news coverage of a campaign for the 24 hours before an election and on Election Day. But the emails were available several hours before the blackout began. They were fair game. Yet the French media did not cover them. Le Monde, a major French newspaper, explained that the hack had “the obvious purpose of undermining the integrity of the ballot.”

Marine Le Pen, Macron’s far-right opponent, accused the news media of a partisan cover-up. But she had no sympathetic outlet to turn to, because there is no equivalent of Fox News or Breitbart in France. “The division in the French media isn’t between left and right,” said Dominique Cardon, director of the Media Lab at the university Sciences Po. “It’s between top and bottom, between professional outlets and some websites linked to very small organizations, or individuals on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube who share a lot of disinformation.” The faint impact of the Macron hack “is a good illustration of how it’s impossible to succeed at manipulation of the news just on social media,” said Arnaud Mercier, a professor of information and political communication at the University Paris 2 Panthéon-Assas. “The hackers needed the sustainment of the traditional media.”

The challenge of informing the public accurately about the coronavirus has also played out differently in the U.S. and Europe. In March, the World Health Organization appealed for help with what it called an “infodemic.” Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others pledged to elevate “authoritative content” and combat misinformation about the virus around the world.

But in August, the global activist group Avaaz released a report showing that conspiracies and falsehoods about the coronavirus and other health issues circulated on Facebook through at least May, far more frequently than posts by authoritative sources like W.H.O. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Avaaz included web traffic from Britain, France, Germany and Italy, along with the United States, and found that the U.S. accounted for 89 percent of the comments, likes and shares of false and misleading health information. “A lot of U.S.-based entities are actually targeting other countries with misinformation in Italian or Spanish or Portuguese,” said Fadi Quran, the campaign director for Avaaz. “In our sample, the U.S. is by far the worst actor.”

America’s information crisis was not inevitable. Nor is it insoluble. Whatever the Supreme Court does, there’s no legal barrier to increasing the delivery of reliable information. The government, federal or state, could invest in efforts to do exactly that. It could stop the decline of local reporting by funding nonprofit journalism. It could create new publicly funded TV or radio to create more alternatives for media that appeals across the ideological spectrum. The only obstacles to such cures for America’s disinformation ills are political.

Last spring, when Twitter started labeling Trump’s misleading and false tweets about voting fraud, he called for revoking Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which Congress wrote in an early stage of the internet to help it grow. Section 230 effectively makes internet platforms, unlike other publishers, immune from libel and other civil suits for the content they carry. Biden also called for revoking Section 230 in January, citing Facebook for “propagating falsehoods they know to be false.”

Taking away the platforms’ immunity, however, seems like a bad fit for the problems at hand. The threat of being sued for libel could encourage platforms to avoid litigation costs by pre-emptively taking down content once someone challenges it. Some of that content would be disinformation and hate speech, but other material might be offensive but true — a risk of overcensorship.

But there’s another idea with bipartisan support: Make the platforms earn their immunity from lawsuits. The Rutgers law professor Goodman and others have proposed using Section 230 as leverage to push the platforms to be more transparent, for example, by disclosing how their algorithms order people’s news feeds and recommendations and how much disinformation and hate speech they circulate. A quid pro quo could go further, requiring the companies to change their algorithms or identify super-spreaders of disinformation and slow the virality of their posts . To make sure new media sites can enter the market, the government could exempt small start-ups but impose conditions on platforms with tens of millions of users.

Congress, as well as the Justice Department, can also promote competition through antitrust enforcement. In early October, the House Judiciary’s Committee’s Democratic leadership released a 449-page report, based on an extensive investigation, that said Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple have monopoly power in their markets like that of the “oil barons and railroad tycoons” of the early 20th century. “Because there is not meaningful competition, dominant firms face little financial consequence when misinformation and propaganda are promoted online,” the report stated.

There are plenty of ideas, and bills, floating around Washington that seek to improve the online speech environment — like the giant step of using antitrust law to break up the big tech companies, or medium-size steps like banning microtargeted political ads, requiring disclosure of the ad buyers, making the platforms file reports detailing when they remove content or reduce its spread. But the United States may miss the chance to lead. To fend off regulation and antitrust enforcement, the internet platforms spend millions of dollars on lobbying in Washington. They align their self-interest with a nationalist pitch, warning that curbing America’s homegrown tech companies would serve the interests of Chinese competitors like TikTok.

Europe, however, doesn’t have a stake in the dominance of American tech companies. Policymakers talk about the importance of maintaining the health of their democracies. “We see how the money of advertisers for extreme speech is shifting from the traditional media to digital media,” Věra Jourová, the vice president for values and transparency at the European Commission, told me this summer. “Google and Facebook are the big suckers of this money.” Among other things, Jourová mentioned regulating the platforms’ algorithms. “These issues here are not driven by big money like they are in the U.S., or by regressive ideas as in a state like China,” she said. Maduro of the European Digital Media Observatory has proposed treating the platforms like essential facilities, the European version of public utilities, and subjecting them to more regulation. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democrat, has outlined a similar idea in the U.S. It would be a huge shift.

As we hurtle toward the November election with a president who has trapped the country in a web of lies, with the sole purpose, it seems, of remaining in office, it’s time to ask whether the American way of protecting free speech is actually keeping us free. Hannah Arendt finished her classic work on totalitarianism in the early 1950s, after barely escaping Germany with her life, leaving friends and homeland behind. She was a Jewish intellectual who saw the Nazis rise to power by demonizing and blaming Jews and other groups with mockery and scorn. The ideal subject of fascist ideology was the person “for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience),” Arendt wrote, “and the distinction between true and false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” An information war may seem to simply be about speech. But Arendt understood that what was at stake was far more.

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer for the magazine and the Truman Capote fellow for creative writing and law at Yale Law School. Her book “Charged” won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the current-interest category and the Silver Gavel book award from the American Bar Association.

Additional design and development by Shannon Lin.

An earlier version of a picture caption with this article referred incorrectly to the pictured protest in Skokie, Ill. It was against a proposed Nazi march; it was not a counterprotest. A neo-Nazi group successfully petitioned to hold a march in Skokie, but held it elsewhere.

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Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction

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(page 96) p. 96 Conclusion: the future of free speech

  • Published: February 2009
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The Conclusion looks to how the free speech debate will continue in the future. So long as we continue to recognise free speech's importance to democracy, then the hope is that we feel braver about resisting pressure to censor ourselves for fear of offending someone. Sometimes we do need to give greater weight to other considerations besides freedom of expression. We must be clear, though, on why the protection of someone is more important than free speech and why we need to draw a line. Toleration of free speech may come by the impossibility of censoring across lines of communication such as the Internet, but this is not certain.

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  • Essay on Freedom of Speech in English Free PDF download


Download Important English Essay on the Topic - Freedom of Speech Free PDF from Vedantu

One of the fundamental rights of the citizens of India is ‘Freedom of Speech’. This is allowed to the citizens by a lot of countries to empower the citizens to share their own thoughts and views. This freedom of speech essay is for students of class 5 and above. The language used in this essay is plain and simple for a better understanding of the students. This freedom of speech essay example will help the students write a paragraph on freedom of speech in their own words easily.

Long Essay on Freedom of Speech

The phrase “Freedom of Speech” has been misinterpreted by some individuals who either do not actually understand the meaning of the phrase completely or have a totally different agenda in mind altogether. Every democratic country gives its citizens this freedom. The same is guaranteed by the Constitution of India too. Irrespective of your gender, religion, caste, or creed, you are guaranteed that freedom as an Indian. The values of democracy in a country are defined by this guaranteed fundamental freedom. The freedom to practice any religion, the freedom to express opinions and disagreeing viewpoints without hurting the sentiments or causing violence is what India is essentially made up of.

Indians stand out for their secularism and for spreading democratic values across the world. Thus, to save and celebrate democracy, enforcing freedom of speech in India becomes a necessity. Freedom of speech is not only about the fundamental rights, it’s also a fundamental duty to be done by every citizen rightfully so as to save the essence of democracy.

In developed democracies like the US, UK, Germany or France, we see a “freedom of speech” that is different from what we see in authoritarian countries like China, Malaysia or Syria and failed democratic countries like Pakistan or Rwanda. These governance systems failed because they lacked freedom of speech. Freedom of press gives us a yardstick to gauge the freedom of speech in a country. A healthy, liberal and strong democracy is reflected by a strong media presence in a country, since they are supposed to be the voice of the common people. A democracy that has a stomach for criticisms and disagreements is taken in a positive way. 

Some governments get very hostile when faced with any form of criticism and so they try to oppress any voices that might stand against them. This becomes a dangerous model of governance for any country. For example, India has more than hundred and thirty crores of population now and we can be sure that every individual will not have the same thought process and same views and opinions about one thing. A true democracy is made by the difference of opinions and the respect people have for each other in the team that is responsible for making the policies.

Before making a choice, all aspects and angles of the topic should be taken into consideration. A good democracy will involve all the people - supporters and critics alike, before formulating a policy, but a bad one will sideline its critics, and force authoritarian and unilateral policies upon all of the citizens.

Sedition law, a British-era law, was a weapon that was used in India to stifle criticism and curb freedom of speech during the pre-independence era. Through section 124A of Indian Penal Code, the law states that if a person with his words, written or spoken, brings hatred, contempt or excites tension towards a government or an individual can be fined or jailed or fined and jailed both. This law was used by the Britishers to stifle the freedom fighters. Today it is being used by the political parties to silence criticism and as a result is harming the democratic values of the nation. 

Many laws in India also protect the people in rightfully exercising their freedom of expression but the implementation of these laws is proving to be a challenge. Freedom of speech cannot be absolute. In the name of freedom of speech, hatred, tensions, bigotry and violence too cannot be caused in the society. It will then become ironically wrong to allow freedom of speech in the first place. Freedom of speech and expression should not become the reason for chaos and anarchy in a nation. Freedom of speech was stifled when article 370 got revoked in Kashmir. Not that the government was trying to go against the democratic values, but they had to prevent the spread of fake news, terrorism or any type of communal tensions in those areas.

Short Essay on Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech allows the people of our country to express themselves, and share their ideas, views and opinions openly. As a result, the public and the media can comment on any political activity and also express their dissent towards anything they think is not appropriate.

Various other countries too provide freedom of speech to their citizens but they have certain limitations. Different countries have different restrictions on their freedom of speech. Some countries also do not allow this fundamental right at all and the best example being North Korea. There, the media or the public are not allowed to speak against the government. It becomes a punishable offence to criticize the government or the ministers or the political parties.

Key Highlights of the Essay - Freedom of Speech

Every democratic country gives its citizens the Freedom of Speech so as to enable the citizens to freely express their individual views, ideas and concerns. The freedom to be able to practice any religion, to be able to express individual secularism and for spreading democratic values across the world. In order to be able to save and to celebrate democracy, enforcing freedom of speech in India Is essential. Freedom of speech  about fundamental rights is also a fundamental duty of citizens in order to save the essence of democracy.  In a country, a healthy, liberal and strong democracy is always  reflected and can be seen through a strong media presence, as the media are the voice of the common people.  When faced with any form of criticism, we see some governments get very hostile,  and they  try to oppress  and stop any kind of  voices that might go against them. This is not favorable for any country. 

A good democracy involves all the people - all their various  supporters and critics alike, before they begin formulating any policies. India had the Sedition law, a British-era law that is used to stifle criticism and curb freedom of speech during the pre-independence era. The section 124A of Indian Penal Code, this law of sedition stated that if a person with his words, written or spoken, brings hatred, contempt or excites tension towards a government or an individual, then he can be fined or jailed or both. Using  freedom of speech, people spread hatred, unnecessary tensions, bigotry and some amount of violence too in the society. Ironically  in such cases, it will be wrong to allow freedom of speech. The reasons for chaos and anarchy in a nation should not be due to  Freedom of speech and expression. This law was stifled when article 370 got revoked in Kashmir, in order to prevent the spread of fake news, terrorism or any type of communal tensions in those areas.

Freedom of speech gives people of our country, the freedom to express themselves, to be able to share their ideas, views and opinions openly, where the public and the media can express and comment on any political activities and can also be able to express their dissent towards anything they think is not appropriate. Different countries have different restrictions on their freedom of speech. And it is not proper to comment on that .In Fact, there are some countries which does not allow this fundamental right , for example, North Korea where neither the media nor the public have any right to speak against or even for the government and it is a punishable offense to openly criticize the government or the or anyone in particular.

While freedom of speech lets the society grow it could have certain negative outcomes. It should not be used to disrespect or instigate others. The media too should not misuse it. We, the people of this nation, should act responsibly towards utilizing its freedom of speech and expression. Lucky we are to be citizens of India. It’s a nation that respects all its citizens and gives them the rights needed for their development and growth.

A fundamental right of every citizen of India, the  ‘Freedom of Speech’ allows citizens to share their individual thoughts and views.


FAQs on Essay on Freedom of Speech in English Free PDF download

1. Mention five lines for Freedom of Speech Essay?

i) A fundamental right that is guaranteed to citizens of a country to be able to express their opinions and points of view without any kind of censorship.

ii) A democracy’s health depends on the extent of freedom of expression of all its citizens.

iii) Freedom of speech is never absolute in nature.

iv) New Zealand, USA or UK rank  high in terms of freedom of speech by its citizens.

v) A fundamental right in the Indian constitution is the Freedom of Speech and Expression.

2. Explain Freedom of Speech?

A fundamental right of every citizen of India, Freedom Of Speech allows every citizen the freedom and the right to express all their views, concerns, ideas and issues relating to anything about their country. Freedom of Speech is never actual in nature  and has its limits too. It cannot be used for any kind of illegal purposes.The health of a democracy depends on the extent of freedom of expression of its citizens.

3. What happens when there is no Freedom of Speech?

A country will become a police and military state with no democratic and humanitarian values in it if there is no freedom of speech. Freedom of Speech is a fundamental right for all citizens, and a failure to not being able to express one’s ideas, beliefs, and thoughts will result in a non authoritarian and non democratic country.  Failure to have freedom of speech in a country would mean that the rulers or the governments of those countries have no respect for its citizens.

4. Where can we get study material related to essay writing ?

It is important to practice some of the important questions in order to do well. Vedantu.com offers these important questions along with answers that have been formulated in a well structured, well researched, and easy to understand manner. Various essay writing topics, letter writing samples, comprehension passages are all available at the online portals today. Practicing and studying with the help of these enable the students to measure their level of proficiency, and also allows them to understand the difficult questions with ease. 

You can avail all the well-researched and good quality chapters, sample papers, syllabus on various topics from the website of Vedantu and its mobile application available on the play store. 

5. Why should students choose Vedantu for an essay on the topic 'Freedom of Speech’?

Essay writing is important for students   as it helps them increase their brain and vocabulary power. Today it is important to be able to practice some important topics, samples and questions to be able to score well in the exams. Vedantu.com offers these important questions along with answers that have been formulated in a well structured, well researched, and easy to understand manner. The NCERT and other study material along with their explanations are very easily accessible from Vedantu.com and can be downloaded too. Practicing with the help of these questions along with the solutions enables the students to measure their level of proficiency, and also allows them to understand the difficult questions with ease. 

6. What is Freedom of Speech?

Freedom of speech is the ability to express our opinions without any fear.

7. Which country allows the highest level of Freedom of Speech to its citizens?

The USA is at the highest with a score of 5.73.

8. Is Freedom of Speech absolute?

No, freedom of speech cannot be absolute. It has limitations.

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Essay#74 | Freedom of Speech

Decide whether you agree/disagree completely with the statement, partly agree/disagree with it, or have no definite opinion.

Choose one of these approaches:

State your position in the introduction and then justify it with arguments.  This may be more suitable if you feel strongly about the statement.

Present the arguments first and then say what you think in the conclusion.  This may be better if you have no strong opinion but can put forward arguments on both sides.

You should spend about 40 minutes on this task.

Write about the following topic:

Some people think that professional athletes make good role models for young people, while others believe they don’t.

Discuss both these points of views and give your own opinion.

Give reasons for your answer and include any relevant examples from your own knowledge or experience.

Write at least 250 words.

Model answer.

In the last decade, there has been considerable debate over the role of free speech in a free society. Some object to absolute freedom of speech. Others advocate free speech, arguing that the freedom of speech is the single most important political right of citizens in a civilized society. Whilst I believe that there are strong arguments on both sides, I would suggest that freedom of speech should be protected in all but extreme circumstances.

The freedom of speech is important at all levels in a society. Yet it is most important for the governments. A government which does not know what the people feel and think is in a dangerous position. This is how the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were toppled in the 1980s. The same is happening again in other regions of the world today. The governments that muzzle free speech run a risk of pushing their people to behave destructively or to rebel.

Furthermore, without free speech no political action is possible and no resistance to injustice and oppression is possible. Without free speech elections would have no meaning at all. Policies of contestants become known to the public and become responsive to public opinion only by virtue of free speech. Between elections the freely expressed opinions of citizens help restrain oppressive rule. Without this freedom it is futile to expect political freedom or consequently economic freedom.

In conclusion, I believe that the importance of free speech as a basic and valuable characteristic of a free society cannot be underestimated. It may be challenging for society to allow differences of opinion out into the open; however, the consequences of restricting free speech are likely to be more damaging in the longer term.

(285 words)

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  1. Freedom of Speech Essay

    freedom of speech solution essay

  2. Essay on Freedom of Speech

    freedom of speech solution essay

  3. Essay on Freedom of Speech

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  4. 7+ Sample Freedom of Speech Templates in PDF

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  5. 8+ Freedom of Speech Example Templates

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  6. How to Write a Freedom of Speech Essay: Example and Tips

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  1. Freedom of Speech

    For many liberals, the legal right to free speech is justified by appealing to an underlying moral right to free speech, understood as a natural right held by all persons. (Some use the term human right equivalently—e.g., Alexander 2005—though the appropriate usage of that term is contested.)

  2. Freedom of Speech Essay • Examples for Students • GradesFixer

    Protection of The Freedom of Speech and The Freedom of Press in USA. 4 pages / 1796 words. The United States of America is known for the freedom it offers its citizens, however, these freedoms are becoming majorly restricted. Among these freedoms is the freedom to express yourself, either through speech or press.

  3. 123 Freedom of Speech Topics & Essay Examples

    Develop a well-organized freedom of speech essay outline. Think of the main points you want to discuss and decide how you can present them in the paper. For example, you can include one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one concluding paragraphs. Define your freedom of speech essay thesis clearly.

  4. Why Is Freedom of Speech an Important Right? When, if Ever, Can It Be

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people ...

  5. Freedom of Speech

    Freedom of speech—the right to express opinions without government restraint—is a democratic ideal that dates back to ancient Greece. In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees free ...

  6. The Significance of Freedom of Speech: [Essay Example], 541 words

    Freedom of speech is a fundamental right that has been the subject of much debate and controversy in recent years. From historical origins to modern-day implications, the concept of freedom of speech has far-reaching significance in promoting democracy, preserving individual rights, and shaping societal discourse.This essay will explore the definition, importance, limitations, controversial ...

  7. Freedom of Speech? A Lesson on Understanding the Protections and Limits

    Then, have students read and annotate an essay explaining the ways in which the Supreme Court has interpreted the freedom of speech. This essay, "Freedom of Speech and of the Press," by the ...

  8. First Amendment

    The First Amendment allows citizens to express and to be exposed to a wide range of opinions and views. It was intended to ensure a free exchange of ideas even if the ideas are unpopular. Freedom of speech encompasses not only the spoken and written word, but also all kinds of expression (including non-verbal communications, such as sit-ins, art, photographs, films and advertisements).

  9. Chapter 6: The Right to Freedom of Speech

    What makes the struggle to protect free speech worthwhile is its ability to serve as a lever for change. When we practice our right to speak openly, we are defining the contours of our democracy. It is messy work, but through it, we keep the Constitution alive and, with it, our dreams of a just society.

  10. Freedom of Speech

    Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from The Sedition Act of 1798 to The War on Terrorism. Strum, P. 1999. When the Nazis came to Skokie: Freedom for Speech We Hate. Kansas University Press. Sunstein, C., 1994, Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech. New York: Free Press. ---, 1995. Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech. Free Press.

  11. The good, the bad, and the ugly of free speech

    From defending the New York Times in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case to Citizens United in 2010, Abrams has argued often before the Supreme Court, always on the side of greater expression. At the NCC, he used his recent book, "The Soul of the First Amendment," as a starting point to survey the current state of free speech.

  12. Why Freedom of Speech is Important: [Essay Example], 702 words

    Introduction. Freedom of speech is a foundational pillar of democratic societies and a fundamental human right. It serves as the bedrock of open and inclusive societies, allowing individuals to express their thoughts, opinions, and ideas freely, without fear of censorship or reprisal. In this essay, we will delve into the multifaceted reasons why freedom of speech is crucial for the protection ...

  13. Freedom of speech

    freedom of expression. freedom of speech, right, as stated in the 1st and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, to express information, ideas, and opinions free of government restrictions based on content. A modern legal test of the legitimacy of proposed restrictions on freedom of speech was stated in the opinion by Oliver ...

  14. What is the role of free speech in a democratic society?

    Ultimately, the health of the First Amendment will depend on two things, Bollinger writes: a continued understanding that free speech plays a critical role in democratic society—and a recognition that the judicial branch doesn't claim sole responsibility for achieving that vision. The legislative and executive branches can support free ...

  15. The Problem of Free Speech in an Age of Disinformation

    Describing the results in a Sept. 3 essay in The Washington Post, one of the project's organizers, Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor and Pentagon official during the Obama administration ...

  16. The Ongoing Challenge to Define Free Speech

    The Ongoing Challenge to Define Free Speech. by Stephen J. Wermiel. Share: Freedom of speech, Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo declared more than 80 years ago, "is the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.". Countless other justices, commentators, philosophers, and more have waxed eloquent for ...

  17. Conclusion: the future of free speech

    Abstract. The Conclusion looks to how the free speech debate will continue in the future. So long as we continue to recognise free speech's importance to democracy, then the hope is that we feel braver about resisting pressure to censor ourselves for fear of offending someone. Sometimes we do need to give greater weight to other considerations ...

  18. Social Media, Freedom of Speech, and the Future of our Democracy

    President Bollinger is one of the nation's foremost First Amendment scholars. In addition to Social Media, Freedom of Speech, and the Future of our Democracy , he is the author or co-editor of numerous books on freedom of speech and press, including National Security, Leaks and Freedom of the Press: The Pentagon Papers Fifty Years On ...

  19. Freedom of Expression

    Freedom of speech. Freedom of speech, or freedom of expression, applies to ideas of all kinds, including those that may be deeply offensive. While international law protects free speech, there are instances where speech can legitimately restricted under the same law - such as when it violates the rights of others, or, advocates hatred and incites discrimination or violence.

  20. Freedom of Speech Essay for Students in English

    Download Important English Essay on the Topic - Freedom of Speech Free PDF from Vedantu. One of the fundamental rights of the citizens of India is 'Freedom of Speech'. This is allowed to the citizens by a lot of countries to empower the citizens to share their own thoughts and views. This freedom of speech essay is for students of class 5 ...

  21. Full article: Protecting the human right to freedom of expression in

    Free speech is a necessary precondition to the enjoyment of other rights, such as the right to vote, free assembly and freedom of association, and is essential to ensure press freedom. However, there is a clear and worrying global trend, including in western democracies, of governments limiting vibrant discussion and debate within civil society ...

  22. IELTS Writing Task 2 : Freedom of Speech

    Model Essay 02 : Freedom of speech is very important for a citizen to upgrade himself and society. Freedom is a key point to initiate development and bring people closer, start networking and move forward for a mission like, Mission of change, Mission of independence etc. Freedom of speaking is necessary for anyone either he is 2 years old kid ...

  23. Essay#74

    The freedom of speech is important at all levels in a society. Yet it is most important for the governments. A government which does not know what the people feel and think is in a dangerous position. This is how the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were toppled in the 1980s. The same is happening again in other regions of the world today.