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Freedom of Speech

By: 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 .

essay of freedom of speech

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 Daryl Tempesta is shown with tape over his mouth in protest in April, in Berkeley, Calif. Demonstrators gathered near the University of California, Berkeley campus amid a strong police presence and rallied to show support for free speech and condemn the views of Ann Coulter and her supporters. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, file)

Daryl Tempesta is shown with tape over his mouth in protest in April, in Berkeley, Calif. Demonstrators gathered near the University of California, Berkeley campus amid a strong police presence and rallied to show support for free speech and condemn the views of Ann Coulter and her supporters. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, file)

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First Amendment – Freedom of Speech

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).

1735 Truth Is A Defense Against Libel Charge

New York printer John Peter Zenger is tried on charges of seditious libel for publishing criticism of the royal governor. English law – asserting that the greater the truth, the greater the libel – prohibits any published criticism of the government that would incite public dissatisfaction with it. Zenger’s lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, convinces the jury that Zenger should be acquitted because the articles were, in fact, true, and that New York libel law should not be the same as English law. The Zenger case is a landmark in the development of protection of freedom of speech and the press.

1787 Federalist Papers’ Publication Starts

The first of 85 essays written under the pen name Publius by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay begin to appear in the New York Independent Journal. The essays, called the Federalist Papers, support ratification of the Constitution approved by the Constitutional Convention on Sept. 17, 1787. In Federalist Paper No. 84, Hamilton discusses “liberty of the press.”

1791 First Amendment Is Ratified

The First Amendment is ratified when Virginia becomes the 11th state to approve the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. The amendment, drafted primarily by James Madison, guarantees basic freedoms for citizens: freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition.

1798 Alien And Sedition Acts Signed Into Law

While the nation’s leaders believe an outspoken press was justified during the war for independence, they take a different view when they are in power. The Federalist-controlled Congress passes the Alien and Sedition Acts. Aimed at quashing criticism of Federalists, the Sedition Act makes it illegal for anyone to express “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against Congress or the president.

The United States is in an undeclared war with France, and Federalists say the law is necessary to protect the nation from attacks and to protect the government from false and malicious words. Republicans argue for a free flow of information and the right to publicly examine officials’ conduct.

1836 Efforts To Stifle Debate About Slavery Unsuccessful

As abolitionists develop the tactic of submitting many antislavery petitions to Congress, proslavery members of the U.S. House of Representatives adopt “gag” rules that bar such petitions from being introduced and debated. In 1844, former President John Quincy Adams, then a representative from Massachusetts, leads the effort to repeal these rules.

1859 ‘On Liberty’ Is Published

British philosopher John Stuart Mill publishes the essay On Liberty , arguing that only through the free exchange of ideas, even offensive ones or ones held by a minority of individuals, can society find “truth.”

1864 Lincoln Orders Two Newspapers Shut

President Abraham Lincoln orders Union Gen. John Dix to stop publication of the New York Journal of Commerce and the New York World after they publish a forged presidential proclamation calling for another military draft. The editors also are arrested. After the authors of the forgery are arrested, the newspapers are allowed to resume publication.

1873 Circulation Of Birth Control Information Outlawed

An “Act of the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use” is passed by Congress. The act, more commonly known as the Comstock Act – after anti-obscenity activist Anthony Comstock – makes it a crime to publish, distribute or possess information about contraception or abortion, or to distribute or possess devices or medications used for those purposes.

Lawmakers were responding to increasing concern about abortion, the institution of marriage, and the changing role of women in society.

1917 Congress Passes Espionage Act Of 1917

With World War I being fought, President Woodrow Wilson proposes the Espionage Act of 1917 to protect the country from internal warfare propaganda. Congress passes the act, which makes it a crime to intentionally interfere with military forces, recruiting or enlistment or “cause or attempt to cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty, in the military or naval forces of the United States.” Punishment is a maximum fine of $10,000, a maximum jail term of 20 years, or both. The act also bans any mailings urging treason.

1918 Sedition Act Of 1918 Punishes Critics Of WWI

An amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, the Sedition Act is passed by Congress. It goes much further than its predecessor, imposing severe criminal penalties on all forms of expression that are critical of the government, its symbols, or its mobilization of resources for World War I. Ultimately, about 900 people will be convicted under the law. Hundreds of noncitizens will be deported without a trial; 249 of them, including anarchist Emma Goldman, will be sent to the Soviet Union.

1919 ‘Clear And Present Danger’ Exception Established

In Schenck v. United States , the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, upholds the conviction of Socialist Charles Schenck for conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act by attempting to distribute thousands of antiwar leaflets to U.S. servicemen. While acknowledging that the First Amendment under normal circumstances might protect Schenck’s activities, the Court holds that in special circumstances, such as wartime, speech that poses a “clear and present danger” can be restricted. The Court likens the ideas expressed in Schenck’s leaflets to “falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

A few days later, in another opinion by Holmes, the Court will uphold Socialist Eugene V. Debs’ conviction, finding that his speech also poses a “clear and present danger” of undermining war recruitment and is not protected by the First Amendment.

1919 ‘Marketplace Of Ideas’ Concept Defined

In his dissent from the majority opinion in Abrams v. United States (upholding the Espionage Act convictions of a group of antiwar activists), U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes coins his famous “marketplace of ideas” phrase to explain the value of freedom of speech. He said that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas … the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”

Over the years, Holmes’ “marketplace” concept, and the idea that more is better when it comes to competing ideas, has been a consistent theme in First Amendment cases.

1925 Court: First Amendment Applies To States’ Laws

In Gitlow v. New York , the U.S. Supreme Court concludes that the free speech clause of the First Amendment applies not just to laws passed by Congress, but also to those passed by the states.

1926 Mencken Arrested For ‘Indecent Literature’

H.L. Mencken is arrested in Boston for distributing copies of his American Mercury magazine, which contains a story with a prostitute as a central character. Censorship groups in Boston say the magazine is obscene and order Mencken’s arrest for selling “indecent literature.”

1927 Criminal Syndicalism Law Constitutional

In Whitney v. California , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that California’s criminal syndicalism law is constitutional. A member of the state’s Communist Labor Party was prosecuted under the law, which barred advocating, teaching or aiding the commission of a crime, including “terrorism” as a way to achieve change in industrial ownership or political change. The Court says that freedom of speech is not an absolute right.

1931 Court: Symbolic Expression Of Ideas Also Protected

In Stromberg v. California , the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates the state court conviction of a 19-year-old member of the Young Communist League for displaying a red flag as “an emblem of opposition to the United States government.” The Court rules that the woman’s nonverbal, symbolic expression of her antigovernment opinions is protected just as are any words that she might write or speak to express those opinions.

1931 Prior Restraint Ruled Unconstitutional

Near v. Minnesota is the first U.S. Supreme Court decision to invoke the First Amendment’s press clause. A Minnesota law prohibited the publication of “malicious, scandalous, and defamatory” newspapers. It was aimed at the Saturday Press, which had run a series of articles about corrupt practices by local politicians and business leaders. The justices rule that prior restraints against publication violate the First Amendment, meaning that once the press possesses information that it deems newsworthy, the government can seldom prevent its publication. The Court also says the protection is not absolute, suggesting that information during wartime or obscenity or incitement to acts of violence may be restricted.

1937 Court: First Amendment Protects ‘Peaceable Assembly’

In De Jonge v. Oregon , the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of Dirk De Jonge for participating in a Communist Party political meeting, holding that “peaceable assembly for lawful discussion cannot be made a crime.” That right, the Court finds, is not dependent upon whether one agrees with the ideas being discussed by the people assembled.

1940 Ban On Religious Solicitation Struck Down

In Cantwell v. Connecticut , the U.S. Supreme Court holds that two Jehovah Witnesses’ rights of free speech and free exercise of religion were violated when they were arrested for proselytizing in a Catholic neighborhood. The Court says the solicitation law, which allows a state official to refuse a permit based on religious grounds, is unconstitutional. The Court also overturns a breach of peace conviction, saying the pair’s message was protected religious speech. The case is the first to extend the free exercise of religion clause to the states and to establish the ‘time, manner and place’ rule, which says the state can regulate the free exercise right to ensure it is practiced in a reasonable time, manner and place.

1940 Flag Salute Requirement Is Upheld

In Minersville School District v. Gobitis , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Pennsylvania flag-salute law after a challenge by a Jehovah’s Witness family whose two children were expelled for refusing to salute the flag. They believe the salute is forbidden by biblical commands. The Court says the flag is a symbol of national unity, which is the “basis of national security.”

1942 ‘Fighting Words’ Exception Established

In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the conviction of a Jehovah’s Witness who had called a police officer a “damned fascist.” The Court rules that there are certain words that “by their very utterance inflict injury” and are of “such slight social value” that they are not welcome in the marketplace of ideas. This category of speech, named “fighting words” by the Court, is not protected by the First Amendment. Consequently, the speaker may be prosecuted.

1943 Court: Required Flag Salute Violates First Amendment

In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette , the U.S. Supreme Court overrules its decision in Minersville School District v. Gobitis and decides that a West Virginia law requiring students to salute the American flag violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment. “Compulsory unification of opinion,” the Court says, is “antithetical to First Amendment values.”

1947 Hatch Act Upheld; Dissent Says It Violates 17th Amendment

In United Public Workers v. Mitchell , the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the Hatch Act, a federal law that prohibits federal employees from participating in many electoral activities does not violate the First Amendment. In a strong dissent, Justice Hugo Black argues that the law muzzles several million citizens and threatens popular government, because it deprives citizens of the right to participate in the political process.

Such limitations, he argues, would be inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition. Moreover, Black finds that the Hatch Act would violate, or come dangerously close to violating, Article I and the 17th Amendment, which protect the right of the people to vote for their representatives in the House and Senate and to have their votes counted.

1949 Scope Of ‘Fighting Words’ Doctrine Limited

In Terminiello v. Chicago , the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of Father Arthur Terminiello for disturbing the peace. He was convicted after giving a controversial speech that criticized various racial and political groups. Several disturbances by protesters occurred after the speech. The Court says “fighting words” can be restricted only when they are “likely to produce a clear and present danger.” Justice William O. Douglas writes that free speech may “best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

1952 Justices Uphold Group Libel Law

In Beauharnais v. Illinois , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the conviction of a white supremacist for passing out leaflets that characterized African Americans as dangerous criminals. The “group libel” law under which Joseph Beauharnais was prosecuted makes it a crime to make false statements about people of a particular “race, color, creed or religion” for no other reason than to harm that group. The Court rules that libel against groups, like libel against individuals, has no place in the marketplace of ideas.

1957 Obscenity Exception To First Amendment Established

In Roth v. United States , the U.S. Supreme Court decides that it is not a violation of the First Amendment for the government to regulate, or even criminalize, speech that is “obscene,” because, just like libel and “fighting words,” obscene speech is “utterly without redeeming social importance.” The Court says that in defining obscenity, the government must consider “contemporary community standards.” What was “obscene” 50 years ago may not be in today’s society.

1958 Court Protects ‘Free Association’ In NAACP Case

In NAACP v. Alabama , the U.S. Supreme Court holds that when Alabama state officials demanded that the NAACP hand over its membership list, the members’ right of “free association” was violated. Although no such right is specifically included in the First Amendment, the Court says it is a necessary extension of the rights to free speech and free assembly: “It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the ‘liberty’ assured by the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech.”

1959 No Protection From Congressional Inquiry

The U.S. Supreme Court finds professor Lloyd Barenblatt’s First Amendment rights were not violated when he was convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to answer questions about his religious and political beliefs before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In Barenblatt v. United States , the Court says that such questions are legitimate when the investigation’s goal is to “aid the legislative process” and to protect important government interests.

1961 Symbolic Speech Of Civil Rights Protesters Protected

In Garner v. Louisiana , the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the convictions of 16 African American demonstrators for disturbing the peace in three lunch counter sit-ins at all-white restaurants in Baton Rouge, La., to protest segregation. The cases were consolidated under Garner v. Louisiana. Referring to earlier court opinions protecting symbolic speech, Justice John Harlan explains that a sit-in demonstration “is as much a part of the free trade of ideas as is verbal expression.”

1964 Court Establishes ‘Actual Malice’ Standard

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan , the U.S. Supreme Court establishes the “actual malice” standard when it reverses a civil libel judgment against the New York Times. The newspaper was sued for libel by Montgomery, Ala.’s police commissioner after it published a full-page ad that criticized anti-civil rights activities in Montgomery. The court rules that debate about public issues and officials is central to the First Amendment. Consequently, public officials cannot sue for libel unless they prove that a statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning it was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

1966 Loyalty Oath Is Struck Down

In Elfbrandt v. Russell , the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates an Arizona law requiring state employees to take a loyalty oath. Anyone who took the oath and then became a member of the Communist Party or any other group that advocated the violent overthrow of the government could be prosecuted for perjury and fired. The Court says the law violates the due process clause by infringing on the right of free association. The Court holds that the law is too broad by punishing a person who joins a group that has both legal and illegal purposes but does not subscribe to the illegal purpose.

1966 Smith Act Is Found Constitutional

In Dennis v. United States , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the convictions of 12 Communist Party leaders who were convicted under the Smith Act of 1940, formally known as the Alien Registration Act. The law makes it illegal to teach or advocate the overthrow or destruction of the U.S. government, or publish any materials or organize a group that endorses such action. The majority writes that the “existence of the conspiracy” creates “a clear and present danger.”

1968 Limits Placed On Symbolic Speech Right

In United States v. O’Brien , the U.S. Supreme Court lets stand the conviction of an activist who burned his draft card to protest the Vietnam War. Although the Court admits that the law against destroying a draft card does limit speech, it rules that the limit is acceptable because it serves an important government interest (i.e., the smooth operation of the draft during wartime) and is “content-neutral,” meaning that it is not meant to punish any particular point of view or opinion.

1968 Teacher’s Free Speech Right Upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court decides that a public school teacher’s free speech right was violated when he was fired for writing a letter to the newspaper criticizing how money was divided between athletics and academics. The justices say in Pickering v. Board of Education that public school teachers are entitled to some First Amendment protection and that the teacher was speaking out more as a citizen than as a public employee when he wrote the letter.

1969 Students’ Right To Symbolic Speech Upheld

In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the school board was wrong to suspend three students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. The Court finds that the students’ passive protest posed no risk of disrupting school activities. “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” the Court’s opinion says.

1969 Private Ownership Of Obscene Material Protected

In Stanley v. Georgia , the U.S. Supreme Court finds unconstitutional a Georgia obscenity law that prohibits the possession of such material. The Court rules that the Constitution “protects the right to receive information and ideas, regardless of their social worth, and to be generally free from governmental intrusions into one’s privacy and control of one’s thoughts.”

1969 Advocacy Of Violence Is Protected Speech Except In Rare Circumstances

In Brandenburg v. Ohio , the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan leader under an Ohio law prohibiting speech that calls for crime or violence as a way of winning political change. The Court holds that unless the speaker incites his listeners to “imminent lawless action,” the speech is protected by the First Amendment.

1971 Antiwar Expression Is Ruled Protected Speech

In Cohen v. California , the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the conviction of a man convicted of disturbing the peace for wearing a jacket bearing a vulgarism about the draft. The Court concludes that the expression, however crude, did not pose enough of a risk of inciting disobedience to override his First Amendment right to express his opposition to the Vietnam War.

1971 Newspapers Win Pentagon Papers Case

The New York Times and the Washington Post obtain secret Defense Department documents that detail U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the years leading up to the Vietnam War. Citing national security, the U.S. government gets temporary restraining orders to halt publication of the documents, known as the Pentagon Papers. But, acting with unusual haste, the U.S. Supreme Court finds in New York Times v. United States that prior restraint on the documents’ publication violates the First Amendment. National security concerns are too speculative to overcome the “heavy presumption” in favor of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press, the Court says.

1972 Court: No Reporter’s Privilege Before Grand Juries

Branzburg v. Hayes is a landmark decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court rejects First Amendment protection for reporters called before a grand jury to reveal confidential information or sources. Reporters argued that if they were forced to identify their sources, their informants would be reluctant to provide information in the future. The Court decides reporters are obliged to cooperate with grand juries just as average citizens are. The justices do allow a small exception for grand jury investigations that are not conducted or initiated in good faith.

1973 Court: States Can Regulate Obscene Exhibits

In Paris Adult Theatre I v. Slaton , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Georgia injunction against the showing of allegedly obscene films at an adult movie theater that allowed only patrons at least 21 years old. The Court finds that “legitimate state interests,” such as preserving quality of life and public safety, are at stake in regulating commercialized obscenity even if the exhibits are limited to consenting adults.

1973 Definition Of Obscenity Is Clarified

In Miller v. California , the U.S. Supreme Court establishes a new definition of obscenity, setting out a three-part test for judging whether material is obscene: (a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

1976 Money Spent In Political Campaigns Considered Speech

When Congress tries to limit expenditures in political campaigns, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Buckley v. Valeo , invalidates provisions that restrict candidates’ ability to spend their own money on a campaign, limit campaign expenditures by an outside group, and limit total campaign spending. The Court compares spending restrictions with restrictions on “political speech.” The majority reasons that discussion of public issues and political candidates are integral to the U.S. political system under the Constitution. The Court says government-imposed limits on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication reduces “the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.”

1976 Justices Protect Commercial Speech

In Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council , the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down a state law that forbids pharmacists from including the prices of prescription drugs in their ads because it is unprofessional conduct. Although such information does not convey an idea other than proposing that a purchase be made, the Court finds that commercial speech enjoys the same First Amendment protection as noncommercial speech.

1977 Court Allows Publication Of Juvenile’s Identity

In Oklahoma Publishing Company v. District Court , the U.S. Supreme Court finds that when a newspaper obtains the name and photograph of a juvenile involved in a juvenile court proceeding, it is unconstitutional to prevent publication of the information, even though the juvenile has a right to confidentiality in such proceedings. A similar ruling will be made by the court two years later, in Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Company , when the Court finds that a newspaper’s First Amendment right takes precedence over a juvenile’s right to anonymity.

1978 Nazis Permitted To March In Skokie, Ill.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals invalidates a city law passed in Skokie, Ill., home to 5,000 Holocaust survivors, to prevent a neo-Nazi group from holding a march there. The Court rules in Collin v. Smith that the group should be permitted to march in their uniforms, distribute anti-Semitic leaflets and display swastikas. The court does not deny the group’s symbols are offensive to many observers, but concludes that “public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.” The U.S. Supreme Court will refuse to review the case.

1978 FCC Can Regulate Indecent Speech

The U.S. Supreme Court, in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation , allows the Federal Communications Commission to regulate indecent speech broadcast over the air. The Court says the FCC can channel broadcasts that contain indecent language to late-night hours, when children are less likely to be listening.

1980 Court Establishes Commercial Speech Test

In Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission , the U.S. Supreme Court decides that a state ban on promotional advertising by the electric utility is unconstitutional. The ruling sets up a four-part test to decide when commercial speech can or cannot be regulated: (1) It must not be misleading or involve illegal activity (2) The government interest advanced by the regulation must be significant (3) The regulation must directly advance the government interest (4) The regulation must be limited to serving the asserted government interest.

1982 School Board Cannot Ban Library Books

In Board of Education v. Pico , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a school board’s decision to remove books from the school library based simply on their content violates the First Amendment’s free speech right. The Court says the First Amendment protects the right to receive information and ideas. The justices allow that books that are “pervasively vulgar” or educationally unsuitable can be removed.

1982 Justices Rule Child Porn Not Protected

In New York v. Ferber , the U.S. Supreme Court holds that the First Amendment does not protect child pornography. Child pornography joins certain categories of speech – libel, “fighting words,” words that present a “clear and present danger” of violence, and obscene material – that are considered to have such negative consequences that it is acceptable for the government to restrict them.

1983 Public Employees’ Free Speech Right Defined

In Connick v. Myers , a landmark free-speech ruling for public employees, the U.S. Supreme Court says that an assistant district attorney’s free speech right was not violated when she was fired for distributing a questionnaire about internal office practices to fellow prosecutors. At least one of Myers’ questions related to a matter of public concern: whether assistant prosecutors felt pressured to work in political campaigns. But, relying on its 1968 Pickering ruling, the Court decides that the employer’s interest in a disruption-free workplace outweighs the employee’s right to comment on an issue of public concern.

1985 Anti-Pornography Law Is Struck Down

In American Booksellers Association v. Hudnut , the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals strikes down an Indianapolis anti-pornography law. The law had not used the court’s guidelines for deciding what is “obscene” material. The court finds that the law unconstitutionally targeted a certain viewpoint and allowed the government to decide which ideas are good or bad.

1986 Court: Student’s Lewd Speech Not Protected

In Bethel School District v. Fraser , the U.S. Supreme Court decides that a high school senior’s free speech right was not violated when he was disciplined for making a lewd speech at an assembly. Previously, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District , the justices had said students do not “shed their constitutional rights” at the schoolhouse door. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger writes that schools can prohibit lewd speech because it is inconsistent with the “fundamental values of public school education.”

1988 Court Allows Censorship Of School Publications

In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that public school administrators can censor speech by students in publications (or activities) that are funded by the school – such as a yearbook, newspaper, play, or art exhibit – if they have a valid educational reason for doing so.

1989 Court: Flag Burning Is Protected Symbolic Speech

In Texas v. Johnson , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that burning an American flag is protected symbolic speech. Gregory Lee Johnson burned the flag outside Dallas City Hall to protest Reagan administration policies. The justices find that his actions fall into the category of expressive conduct and have a political nature. Speech cannot be prohibited simply because an audience takes offense to certain ideas, the Court says.

1990 Flag Protection Act Ruled Unconstitutional

In U.S. v. Eichman , the U.S. Supreme Court decides that the 1989 Flag Protection Act is unconstitutional. The law provided penalties of up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine for anyone who “knowingly mutilates, physically defiles, burns, maintains on the floor or ground, or tramples upon” any U.S. flag. The justices rule that the right to free expression supersedes protection of the flag as a national symbol. Justice William J. Brennan writes: “Punishing desecration of the flag dilutes the very freedom that makes this emblem so revered, and worth revering.”

1991 Media Coverage Limited In Gulf War

The Pentagon imposes rules for media coverage of the war in the Persian Gulf, citing the possibility that some news – including information on downed aircrafts, specific troop numbers, and names of operations – may endanger lives or jeopardize U.S. military strategy. Nine news organizations file a lawsuit questioning the constitutionality of limiting media access to the battleground. But a court rules the question moot when the war ends before the case is decided.

1991 Son Of Sam Law Is Struck Down

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down New York’s Son of Sam law aimed at preventing convicted criminals or those accused of crimes from profiting from the sale of any work discussing their crimes. In Simon & Schuster Inc. v. New York State Crime Victims Board , the Court says the law violates the First Amendment because it singles out earnings from speech or writing.

1992 Court Strikes Down Hate Crime Law

In R.A.V. v. The City of St. Paul , the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the juvenile conviction of a 14-year-old white boy who burned a cross on the lawn of an African American family. The boy was prosecuted under a law prohibiting the placement of certain symbols that were “likely to arouse anger, alarm, or resentment on the basis of race, religion, or gender.” The Court finds that because the law punishes certain conduct only because of the ideas behind it – however offensive those ideas may be – it violates the First Amendment’s free speech clause.

1993 Justices Allow Tougher Hate Crime Penalties

In Wisconsin v. Mitchell , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Wisconsin law that increases the penalty for assault if the offender purposely picks his victim “because of the race, religion, color, disability, sexual orientation or national origin or ancestry of that person.” The Court rules that the increased penalty does not violate the offender’s free speech rights because the Wisconsin law is aimed at the offender’s actions.

1994 Justices Uphold Buffer Zones At Abortion Clinics

In Madsen v. Women’s Health Center , the U.S. Supreme Court affirms a Florida court’s ruling that abortion protesters could not demonstrate within 36 feet of an abortion clinic, make loud noises within earshot of the clinic, or make loud noises within 300 feet of a clinic employee’s home. (These distance requirements are known as buffer zones.) Although the Court acknowledges that the ruling restricts the protesters’ speech, it finds the restrictions “necessary to serve a significant government interest” of providing needed health care.

1995 Communications Decency Act Passed

As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress enacts the Communications Decency Act. The law is intended primarily to protect minors using the internet by criminalizing the placement of “obscene” and “patently offensive” material on the Web. The Communications Decency Act is almost immediately challenged by a diverse coalition of health-care providers, sex educators and pornographers on the grounds that the law violates the right to free speech.

1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act Passed

The Child Pornography Prevention Act expands the definition of child pornography – which, unlike most pornography involving adult subjects, does not enjoy First Amendment protection and can be criminalized – to include computer-generated depictions of children engaging in sexual activity. The act is challenged on First Amendment grounds by a variety of civil liberties and artistic groups.

1997 ‘Floating’ Buffer Zones At Clinics Struck Down

In Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a 15-foot buffer zone around an abortion clinic’s entrances and driveways, but strikes down a “floating” buffer zone that requires protesters to stay 15 feet away from all cars and patients as they enter and exit the clinic. The Court finds that, in contrast to the “fixed” buffer zone around the clinic, the “floating” zone risks silencing protesters: “Leafletting and commenting on matters of public concern are classic forms of speech that lie at the heart of the First Amendment, and speech in public areas is at its most protected on public sidewalks, a prototypical example of a traditional public forum.”

1997 Equal Access For Military Recruiters Is Upheld

The Solomon Amendment requires institutions of higher education to provide military recruiters with the same access to students as other potential employers. If the school does not, it loses certain federal funds. Members of an association of law schools and law faculties wanted to restrict military recruiting because they objected to the military’s policy on LGBT+ recruits. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously says that the Solomon Amendment does not place an unconstitutional condition on the receipt of federal funds. The Court says the First Amendment does not prevent Congress from directly imposing the equal access requirement because the Solomon Amendment limits conduct, not speech.

1997 Court Ruling Backs Free Speech On Internet

In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union , the U.S. Supreme Court gives broad support to free speech on the Internet. The justices rule that the Communications Decency Act violates the First Amendment by criminalizing many kinds of material on the internet that are not obscene or offensive, such as medical information or artistic depictions of the human body.

1998 Court: Public TV Can Exclude Candidates

The U.S. Supreme Court decides that public television stations can exclude minor-party candidates from their debates as long as the decision is not based on the candidates’ views and the debates are not designed as public forums. The decision, in Arkansas Educational Television Commission v. Forbes , strikes down an appeals court ruling that a state-owned TV network is obliged under the First Amendment to allow any candidate who has qualified for the ballot access to a debate.

1998 Decency Test On Arts Grants Is Upheld

In National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the NEA, the government’s art-funding agency, can include “decency” standards among its criteria for awarding government grants for artists’ work without violating the First Amendment.

1999 Giuliani Targets Publicly Funded Art

Infuriated by a planned exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art that features an image of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatens to cut all city funding to the museum, evict the museum from its building, and remove the Board of Directors. A subsequent First Amendment lawsuit between the museum and the city will be settled the following year, with the city agreeing to pay an additional $5.8 million in repairs to the museum over the next two years.

2000 Boy Scouts Can Bar LGBT+ Leaders

In Boy Scouts of America v. Dale , the U.S. Supreme Court says the Boy Scouts organization has the right to bar gay people from serving as troop leaders. Assistant scoutmaster James Dale contended that the Boy Scouts had violated a New Jersey statute banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in places of public accommodation. The justices said the law violated the Boy Scouts’ First Amendment right to expressive association.

2000 Court Revisits ‘Floating’ Buffer Zones At Clinics

In Hill v. Colorado , the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Colorado law that prohibits abortion protesters from “knowingly approaching” within eight feet of a person entering or exiting an abortion clinic. The Court says that, unlike the “floating” 15-foot buffer zone that it struck down in Schenck , the buffer zone in the Colorado law is small, so protesters are still able to exercise their free speech right.

2000 Children’s Internet Protection Act Passed

Congress passes the Children’s Internet Protection Act. The law requires public libraries that receive certain federal funds to use a portion of those funds to buy internet programs for their computer terminals to filter out material that is “harmful to minors.” The American Library Association and the ACLU both bring lawsuits challenging the law on First Amendment grounds.

2002 Ban On ‘Virtual’ Child Porn Struck Down

In Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Child Pornography Prevention Act’s criminalization of computer-generated depictions of children engaging in sexual activity violates the First Amendment. The Court finds that the law goes further than existing child pornography laws (which ban material involving actual children) to potentially cover many kinds of images that are not pornographic.

2003 Law To Protect Children Passed

The Prosecutorial Remedies and Other Tools to end the Exploitation of Children Today Act, or the PROTECT Act, includes numerous provisions intended to protect children from exploitation, kidnapping, and other crimes. It increases penalties for creating child pornography and strengthens penalties for “virtual” child pornography. Modern technology makes it easier for individuals to produce child pornography without involving “real” children. This law takes steps to prevent that practice. The law also encourages increased cooperation of internet service providers to report suspected child pornography.

2003 Court Rules On Cross-Burning Law

In Virginia v. Black , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that a law prohibiting cross burning could, in theory, be allowed under the First Amendment if it targets only cross burnings that are specifically “intended to intimidate.” Nevertheless, the Court strikes down the Virginia law because it outlaws all cross burnings, including those intended to express a political view.

2003 Law On Library Internet Filters Upheld

In United States v. American Library Association , the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) of 2000, requiring public libraries that receive certain federal funds to buy internet filters for their computers to weed out material that is “harmful to minors,” does not violate the First Amendment. The Court says that Congress has broad authority to attach restrictions to its funding, and that the CIPA restrictions are consistent with library rules that limit children’s access to only age-appropriate materials. The Court says that libraries are allowed to disable the “blocking” software for adults.

2003 Justices Uphold Campaign Finance Law

The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold Bill, is an effort to change the way money is raised and spent by political campaigns. Key parts are a ban on unrestricted (“soft money”) donations to political parties (often by corporations and unions) and restrictions on TV ads sponsored by unions, corporations and nonprofit groups up to 60 days before elections. The plaintiffs, including unlikely allies such as the National Rifle Association and the ACLU, say these provisions violate their rights to free speech and association. The U.S. Supreme Court upholds the provisions, finding that they are justified by the government’s interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption that might result.

2004 Child Online Protection Act Struck Down

After the Child Online Protection Act became law, the ACLU sued to stop its enforcement, saying the law violated the right to free speech. The U.S. District Court and the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both agree with the ACLU. In 2002, however, the U.S. Supreme Court orders the Third Circuit to reevaluate the case, saying the decision was based on insufficient reasoning.

In 2003, the appeals court again finds the law unconstitutional, based on different grounds from the first ruling. The justices agree to rehear the case and, in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union , strike down the law. Justice Anthony Kennedy writes that children can be protected from inappropriate material by other, less restrictive ways and that the law could prevent adults from accessing information they have a right to view.

2004 Patriot Act Provision Ruled Unconstitutional

A federal judge for the Southern District of New York rules unconstitutional a Patriot Act provision that allows the FBI to demand information about internet users but does not hold the FBI subject to public review or judicial oversight for its actions. The provision also forbids internet service providers from revealing that such information has been requested. Judge Victor Marrero rules that this provision violates the free speech right by prohibiting internet service providers from ever speaking about such FBI requests.

2006 Court Rejects Vermont Campaign Finance Law

Vermont’s Act 64 stringently limits the amounts that candidates for state office may spend on their campaigns and the amounts that individuals, organizations, and political parties may contribute. In Randall v. Sorrell , the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirms its 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo that rejected limits on how much candidates could spend on their own campaigns. Regarding Vermont’s contribution limits, the Court says they are so low that they pose a constitutional risk to the electoral process. Challengers may be unable to mount an effective challenge to better-financed incumbents.

2007 Court Strikes Down Ad Limits In Campaign Law

The U.S. Supreme Court creates an exemption to advertisement restrictions set out in the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. In Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life , Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. writes that only ads that make specific appeals to vote for or against a candidate can be prohibited in the period covered by the law – 30 days before a primary election and 60 days before a general election. The Court says limits on TV ads sponsored by corporations or unions in that period amount to censorship of political speech, which is protected under the First Amendment.

2007 Justices Restrict Students’ Free Speech Right

In Morse v. Frederick , the U.S. Supreme Court affirms that free speech rights for public school students are not as extensive as those for adults. In this case, a student held up a banner with the message “Bong Hits 4 Jesus,” a slang reference to marijuana use, at a school-supervised event across from the campus. The principal removed the banner and suspended the student for 10 days. The majority opinion says that although students have some right to political speech, it does not include pro-drug messages that may undermine the school’s mission to educate against illegal drug use.

2009 City’s Refusal Of Religious Monument Upheld

The U.S. Supreme Court decides unanimously in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum that a Utah city did not violate the Summum church’s free speech right by refusing a donation of a monument reflecting its beliefs. The church argued that the park, which had a Ten Commandments monument, was a public forum and that the city could not discriminate among speakers. The Court said permanent monuments were government speech and did not have the same free speech protection as speakers or leaflets in a public forum.

2010 Court Lifts Limits On Corporate Election Spending

In Citizens United v. FEC , the U.S. Supreme Court rules, 5-4, to remove limits on corporate spending on elections. Corporations and unions still cannot directly give money to federal candidates or national party committees. The majority opinion says the First Amendment right of free speech extended to corporations. The landmark decision overturns decades of rules that governed the campaign finance and sparked fears that a flood of money into politics would dramatically alter campaigns.

2010 Corporate Spending Limit Rejected

The U.S. Supreme Court decides, 5-4, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission , that the government cannot regulate political speech — political spending — by corporations in elections. “If the First Amendment has any force,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writes for the majority, “it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.” The dissenters warn of the consequences if a flood of corporate money is unleashed in elections. Justice John Paul Stevens says corporate speech should not be treated the same as that of people. The ruling overturns two precedents about the free speech rights of corporations: Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce , a 1990 ruling that upheld restrictions on corporate spending to support or oppose political candidates, and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission , a 2003 decision that upheld the part of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 that restricted campaign spending by corporations and unions.

2011 First Amendment Protects Funeral Protests

“Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain.” Those are Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s words when the Supreme Court rules in Snyder v. Phelps that the First Amendment’s right to free speech protects hateful protests at military funerals. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church — which believes God is punishing the U.S. for its tolerance of homosexuality — had appeared at the funeral of a Marine who died in Iraq. Albert Snyder, the Marine’s father, sued the protesters for, among other things, intentional infliction of emotional distress. Roberts suggests that laws creating buffer zones around funerals would be a better response than punishing unpopular speech. He says that the nation’s commitment to free speech demands protection of “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

2012 Person’s Right To Lie Is Protected

The U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law that made it illegal for individuals to claim to have won or to wear military medals or ribbons that they didn’t earn. The Court, in a 6-3 ruling, says that the First Amendment protects the right to lie about medals and military service. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy says freedom of speech “protects the speech we detest as well as the speech we embrace.” The government had argued that such lies “inhibit the government’s efforts to ensure that the armed services and the public perceive awards as going only to the most deserving few.”

2012 U.S. Can’t Require Graphic Warnings On Cigarette Packs

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rules that the federal Food and Drug Administration cannot require tobacco companies to place large graphic health warnings on cigarette packages to show the effects of smoking. The appeals court upholds a lower court’s decision that the requirement violates the First Amendment’s free speech right. Some of the largest tobacco companies sued the government, arguing that the warnings were not just factual information but advocated against smoking.

2015 States May Limit Judicial Candidates’ Fund-Raising Requests

The U.S. Supreme Court rules, 5-4, in Williams-Yulee v. Florida Bar , No. 13-1499 that states may ban judicial candidates from personally asking their supporters for money. Twenty-nine other states also prohibit personal solicitations, which they say threaten the integrity of the judicial branch and public confidence in the system.

2015 Intent Cited in Online Threats Case

In a social media case, Elonis v. United States , the U.S. Supreme Court reverses the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who had used violent language against his wife on Facebook. The majority opinion says prosecutors failed to prove the defendant’s intent when he published threatening lyrics about his wife on Facebook. The decision makes it harder to prosecute people for threats made on social media.

2015 Court Says Texas May Reject License Plate Design

The U.S. Supreme Court decides in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. , 5-4, that Texas may refuse to make a specialty license plate with the Confederate flag. The Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the state when it refused to make such a plate. The group said its First Amendment right to free speech had been violated. The majority opinion says that because license plates “constitute government speech,” Texas could choose which designs to produce.

2015 Town Ordinance On Signs Struck Down

In Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Ariz., the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously strikes down a town law that treated a church’s signs differently from other signs, such as political ads. Unlike other signs, the church signs were limited in size and allowed to be in place for only a certain number of house. The majority opinion says that the town ordinance was based on the content of the sign’s message, which violates the First Amendment’s free speech right.

2019 Federal Ban on ‘Immoral,’ ‘Scandalous’ Trademarks Struck Down

The U.S. Supreme Court rules, 6-3, that the federal government’s ban on registering “immoral” and “scandalous” trademarks violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. The dissenters express concern that the majority opinion goes too far and that the trademark office would be forced to register trademarks containing “the most vulgar, profane, or obscene words and images imaginable.” In the case, Iancu v. Brunetti, a Los Angeles artist, Erik Brunetti, sued the government for refusing to register the trademark for his “subversive” clothing line.

2021 Court Backs Catholic Agency Over Refusal To Work With Same-Sex Couples

The U.S. Supreme Court sides with a Catholic foster care agency that was cut off by the City of Philadelphia from receiving foster care referrals because it refused to work with same-sex couples. The agency believes marriage is between a man and a woman. The Court unanimously rules in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia that the city was wrong to end its foster care contract with Catholic Social Services. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for six of the justices, said the city’s refusal to contract with the foster care agency unless it agreed to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violated the First Amendment.

2021 Court Sides With Cheerleader In Off-Campus Speech

The U.S. Supreme Court rules 8-1 in Mahony Area School District v. B.L. in favor of a Pennsylvania cheerleader who lost her place on the squad because of a profane off-campus rant posted on social media. Although the Court said the punishment violated her First Amendment right of free speech, it declined to say schools never have a role in disciplining students for off-campus speech.

2022 Censure of Politician Is Constitutional, High Court Says

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decides in House Community College System v. Wilson that elected bodies do not violate the First Amendment’s free speech clause when they censure a member. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote: “In this country, we expect elected representatives to shoulder a degree of criticism about their public service from their constituents and their peers — and to continue exercising their free speech rights when the criticism comes.”

2022 High Court Rules Against Boston On Christian Flag

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rules in Shurtleff v. City of Boston that the City of Boston violated the First Amendment when it refused to let a private group raise a Christian flag in front of its City Hall. One of three flagpoles is occasionally made available to groups seeking to celebrate their backgrounds or to promote causes like gay pride. In a 12-year period, the city approved 284 requests to raise flags and rejected only one, from Camp Constitution, which says it seeks “to enhance understanding of our Judeo-Christian moral heritage.” The city’s refusal to let the group fly its flag based on its religious viewpoint violated the free speech clause of the First Amendment, the majority opinion said.

Related Resources

  • Book: First Amendment (1791)
  • Handout: Freedom of Speech: Finding the Limits
  • Book: Chapter 6: The Right to Freedom of Speech
  • Video: A Conversation on the Constitution with Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor: Freedom of Speech
  • Book: Chapter 8: The Latitude and Limits of Free Speech
  • Book: Chapter 10: The Flag-Salute Cases
  • Book: Chapter 18: Freedom of Speech in Public Schools

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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  • Fish, S. 1994, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech…and it's a good thing too . New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Fiss, O.M. 1996. Liberalism Divided: Freedom of Speech and the Many Uses of State Power . Boulder: Westview Press.
  • Flathman, R., 1987, The Philosophy and Politics of Freedom . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Garry, P.M. 1994. Scrambling for Protection: The New media and the First Amendment . Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
  • Gates, H.L. 1995. Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties . New York: New York University Press.
  • Graber, M.A. 1992. Transforming Free Speech: The Ambiguous Legacy of Civil Libertarianism . Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Gray, J., 1996, Mill on Liberty: A Defence . London: Routledge.
  • Greenawalt, K. 1996. Fighting Words . Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Hashim Kamali, Mohammad. 1997. Freedom of Expression in Islam . Islamic Texts Society.
  • Hobbes, Thomas, 1968, Leviathan , ed. C.B. Macpherson. London: Penguin Books.
  • Jacobson, D., 2000, “Mill on Liberty, Speech, and the Free Society,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs , 29 no.3.
  • Kateb, G., 1989, “The Freedom of Worthless and Harmful Speech” in Liberalism without Illusions: Essays on Liberal Theory and the Political Vision of Judith N. Shklar . ed. Bernard Yack. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kramer, M., 2002, “Why Freedoms Do Not Exist by Degrees,” in Political Studies , Vol 50.
  • Langton, R., 1990. “Whose Right? Ronald Dworkin, Women, and Pornographers,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs , 19, no.4.
  • –––, 1993, “Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs , Vol.22, No.4.
  • Lewis, A. 1995. Make No Law . Random House.
  • Lyons, D., 1994, Rights, Welfare, and Mill's Moral Theory . New York: Oxford University Press.
  • MacKinnon, C., 1987, Feminism Unmodified . Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • Magee, J. 2002. Freedom of Expression . Greenwood Press.
  • Mcleod, K. 2007. Freedom of Expression: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property .Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mill, J.S., 1978, On Liberty . Indianapolis:Hackett Publishing Press.
  • Nelson, S.P. 1994. Beyond the First Amendment: The Politics of Free Speech and Pluralism . Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Netanel, N.W. 2008. Copyright's Paradox: Property in Expression/Freedom of Expression . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • O'Rourke, K.C. 2001. John Stuart Mill and Freedom of Expression: The Genesis of a Theory . Routledge.
  • Pinaire, B. 2008. The Constitution of Electoral Speech Law: The Supreme Court and Freedom of Expression in Campaigns and Elections . Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Post, S.G. 2003. Human Nature and the Freedom of Public Religious Expression . University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Rauch, J. 1995. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Raz, J., 1986, The Morality of Freedom . Clarendon: Oxford University Press.
  • Rees, J.C., 1991, “A Re-reading of Mill on Liberty” in J.S. Mill-On Liberty in Focus , eds. John Gray and G.W. Smith. London: Routledge.
  • Riley, J., 1998, Mill on Liberty . New York: Routledge.
  • Scanlon, T., 1972, “A Theory of Freedom of Expression,” Philosophy and Public Affairs , 1, no.2.
  • Schauer, F. Free Speech: A Philosophical Enquiry . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shiffrin, S. 1990. The First Amendment: Democracy and Romance . Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Soley, L. 2002. Censorship INC.: The Corporate Threat to Free Speech in the United States . Monthly Review Press.
  • Stone, G. 2004. 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.
  • –––, 2003. Why Societies Need Dissent . Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Ten, C.L., 1991, “Mill's Defence of Liberty,” in J.S. Mill—On Liberty in Focus , eds. John Gray and G.W. Smith. London: Routledge.
  • Walker, S. 1994. Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy . University of Nebraska Press.
  • Waluchow, W.J. 1994. Free Expression: Essays in Law and Philosophy . Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • West, C. 2003. “The Free Speech Argument Against Pornography”, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 33(3).
  • West, Caroline, “Pornography and Censorship”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2005 Edition) , Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

[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

democracy | equality | Mill, John Stuart | paternalism | pornography: and censorship

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Freedom of speech: historical background.

  • U.S. Constitution Annotated

First Amendment :

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 peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Madison’s version of the speech and press clauses, introduced in the House of Representatives on June 8, 1789, provided: “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.” 1 Footnote 1 Annals of Cong. 434 (1789) . Madison had also proposed language limiting the power of the states in a number of respects, including a guarantee of freedom of the press. Id. at 435 . Although passed by the House, the amendment was defeated by the Senate. See “Amendments to the Constitution, Bill of Rights and the States,” supra . The special committee rewrote the language to some extent, adding other provisions from Madison’s draft, to make it read: “The freedom of speech and of the press, and the right of the people peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to apply to the government for redress of grievances, shall not be infringed.” 2 Footnote Id. at 731 (August 15, 1789). In this form it went to the Senate, which rewrote it to read: “That Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and consult for their common good, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” 3 Footnote The Bill of Rights: A Documentary History 1148–49 (B. Schwartz ed. 1971) . Subsequently, the religion clauses and these clauses were combined by the Senate. 4 Footnote Id. at 1153 . The final language was agreed upon in conference.

Debate in the House is unenlightening with regard to the meaning the Members ascribed to the speech and press clause, and there is no record of debate in the Senate. 5 Footnote The House debate insofar as it touched upon this amendment was concerned almost exclusively with a motion to strike the right to assemble and an amendment to add a right of the people to instruct their Representatives. 1 Annals of Cong. 731–49 (Aug. 15, 1789) . There are no records of debates in the states on ratification. In the course of debate, Madison warned against the dangers that would arise “from discussing and proposing abstract propositions, of which the judgment may not be convinced. I venture to say, that if we confine ourselves to an enumeration of simple, acknowledged principles, the ratification will meet with but little difficulty.” 6 Footnote Id. at 738 . That the “simple, acknowledged principles” embodied in the First Amendment have occasioned controversy without end both in the courts and out should alert one to the difficulties latent in such spare language.

Insofar as there is likely to have been a consensus, it was no doubt the common law view as expressed by Blackstone. “The liberty of the press is indeed essential to the nature of a free state; but this consists in laying no previous restraints upon publications, and not in freedom from censure for criminal matter when published. Every freeman has an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he pleases before the public; to forbid this, is to destroy the freedom of the press: but if he publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he must take the consequences of his own temerity. To subject the press to the restrictive power of a licenser, as was formerly done, both before and since the Revolution, is to subject all freedom of sentiment to the prejudices of one man, and make him the arbitrary and infallible judge of all controverted points in learning, religion and government. But to punish as the law does at present any dangerous or offensive writings, which, when published, shall on a fair and impartial trial be adjudged of a pernicious tendency, is necessary for the preservation of peace and good order, of government and religion, the only solid foundations of civil liberty. Thus, the will of individuals is still left free: the abuse only of that free will is the object of legal punishment. Neither is any restraint hereby laid upon freedom of thought or inquiry; liberty of private sentiment is still left; the disseminating, or making public, of bad sentiments, destructive to the ends of society, is the crime which society corrects.” 7 Footnote 4 W. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England 151–52 (T. Cooley, 2d rev. ed. 1872) . See 3 J. Story , Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States 1874–86 (1833) . The most comprehensive effort to assess theory and practice in the period prior to and immediately following adoption of the Amendment is L. Levy , Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History (1960) , which generally concluded that the Blackstonian view was the prevailing one at the time and probably the understanding of those who drafted, voted for, and ratified the Amendment.

Whatever the general unanimity on this proposition at the time of the proposal of and ratification of the First Amendment , 8 Footnote It would appear that Madison advanced libertarian views earlier than his Jeffersonian compatriots, as witness his leadership of a move to refuse officially to concur in Washington’s condemnation of “[c]ertain self-created societies,” by which the President meant political clubs supporting the French Revolution, and his success in deflecting the Federalist intention to censure such societies. I. Brant , James Madison: Father of the Constitution 1787–1800 at 416–20 (1950) . “If we advert to the nature of republican government,” Madison told the House, “we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people.” 4 Annals of Cong. 934 (1794) . On the other hand, the early Madison, while a member of his county’s committee on public safety, had enthusiastically promoted prosecution of Loyalist speakers and the burning of their pamphlets during the Revolutionary period. 1 Papers of James Madison 147, 161–62, 190–92 (W. Hutchinson & W. Rachal, eds., 1962) . There seems little doubt that Jefferson held to the Blackstonian view. Writing to Madison in 1788, he said: “A declaration that the Federal Government will never restrain the presses from printing anything they please, will not take away the liability of the printers for false facts printed.” 13 Papers of Thomas Jefferson 442 (J. Boyd ed., 1955) . Commenting a year later to Madison on his proposed amendment, Jefferson suggested that the free speech-free press clause might read something like: “The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write or otherwise to publish anything but false facts affecting injuriously the life, liberty, property, or reputation of others or affecting the peace of the confederacy with foreign nations.” 15 Papers , supra , at 367. it appears that there emerged in the course of the Jeffersonian counterattack on the Sedition Act 9 Footnote The Act, 1 Stat. 596 (1798), punished anyone who would “write, print, utter or publish . . . 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.” See J. Smith , Freedom’s Fetters: The Alien and Sedition Laws and American Civil Liberties (1956) . and the use by the Adams Administration of the Act to prosecute its political opponents, 10 Footnote Id. at 159 et seq. something of a libertarian theory of freedom of speech and press, 11 Footnote L. Levy , Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History ch. 6 (1960) ; New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 273–76 (1964) . But compare L. Levy , Emergence of a Free Press (1985) , a revised and enlarged edition of Legacy of Expression , in which Professor Levy modifies his earlier views, arguing that while the intention of the Framers to outlaw the crime of seditious libel, in pursuit of a free speech principle, cannot be established and may not have been the goal, there was a tradition of robust and rowdy expression during the period of the framing that contradicts his prior view that a modern theory of free expression did not begin to emerge until the debate over the Alien and Sedition Acts. which, however much the Jeffersonians may have departed from it upon assuming power, 12 Footnote L. Levy , Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side (1963) . Thus President Jefferson wrote to Governor McKean of Pennsylvania in 1803: “The federalists having failed in destroying freedom of the press by their gag-law, seem to have attacked it in an opposite direction; that is, by pushing its licentiousness and its lying to such a degree of prostitution as to deprive it of all credit. . . . This is a dangerous state of things, and the press ought to be restored to its credibility if possible. The restraints provided by the laws of the States are sufficient for this if applied. And I have, therefore, long thought that a few prosecutions of the most prominent offenders would have a wholesome effect in restoring the integrity of the presses. Not a general prosecution, for that would look like persecution; but a selected one.” 9 Works of Thomas Jefferson 449 (P. Ford ed., 1905) . was to blossom into the theory undergirding Supreme Court First Amendment jurisprudence in modern times. Full acceptance of the theory that the Amendment operates not only to bar most prior restraints of expression but subsequent punishment of all but a narrow range of expression, in political discourse and indeed in all fields of expression, dates from a quite recent period, although the Court’s movement toward that position began in its consideration of limitations on speech and press in the period following World War I. 13 Footnote New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) , provides the principal doctrinal justification for the development, although the results had long since been fully applied by the Court. In Sullivan , Justice Brennan discerned in the controversies over the Sedition Act a crystallization of “a national awareness of the central meaning of the First Amendment ,” id. at 273 , which is that the “right of free public discussion of the stewardship of public officials . . . [is] a fundamental principle of the American form of government.” Id. at 275 . This “central meaning” proscribes either civil or criminal punishment for any but the most maliciously, knowingly false criticism of government. “Although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history. . . . [The historical record] reflect[s] a broad consensus that the Act, because of the restraint it imposed upon criticism of government and public officials, was inconsistent with the First Amendment .” Id. at 276 . Madison’s Virginia Resolutions of 1798 and his Report in support of them brought together and expressed the theories being developed by the Jeffersonians and represent a solid doctrinal foundation for the point of view that the First Amendment superseded the common law on speech and press, that a free, popular government cannot be libeled, and that the First Amendment absolutely protects speech and press. 6 Writings of James Madison , 341–406 (G. Hunt ed., 1908) . Thus, in 1907, Justice Holmes could observe that, even if the Fourteenth Amendment embodied prohibitions similar to the First Amendment , “still we should be far from the conclusion that the plaintiff in error would have us reach. In the first place, the main purpose of such constitutional provisions is 'to prevent all such previous restraints upon publications as had been practiced by other governments,' and they do not prevent the subsequent punishment of such as may be deemed contrary to the public welfare. The preliminary freedom extends as well to the false as to the true; the subsequent punishment may extend as well to the true as to the false. This was the law of criminal libel apart from statute in most cases, if not in all.” 14 Footnote Patterson v. Colorado, 205 U.S. 454, 462 (1907) (emphasis in original, citation omitted). Justice Frankfurter had similar views in 1951: “The historic antecedents of the First Amendment preclude the notion that its purpose was to give unqualified immunity to every expression that touched on matters within the range of political interest. . . . ‘The law is perfectly well settled,’ this Court said over fifty years ago, ‘that the first ten amendments to the Constitution, commonly known as the Bill of Rights, were not intended to lay down any novel principles of government, but simply to embody certain guaranties and immunities which we had inherited from our English ancestors, and which had from time immemorial been subject to certain well-recognized exceptions arising from the necessities of the case. In incorporating these principles into the fundamental law there was no intention of disregarding the exceptions, which continued to be recognized as if they had been formally expressed.’ Robertson v. Baldwin, 165 U.S. 275, 281 (1897) . That this represents the authentic view of the Bill of Rights and the spirit in which it must be construed has been recognized again and again in cases that have come here within the last fifty years.” Dennis v. United States, 341 U.S. 494, 521–522, 524 (1951) (concurring opinion). But as Justice Holmes also observed, “[t]here is no constitutional right to have all general propositions of law once adopted remain unchanged.” 15 Footnote Patterson v. Colorado, 205 U.S. 454, 461 (1907) .

But, in Schenck v. United States , 16 Footnote 249 U.S. 47, 51–52 (1919) (citations omitted). the first of the post-World War I cases to reach the Court, Justice Holmes, in his opinion for the Court upholding convictions for violating the Espionage Act by attempting to cause insubordination in the military service by circulation of leaflets, suggested First Amendment restraints on subsequent punishment as well as on prior restraint. “It well may be that the prohibition of laws abridging the freedom of speech is not confined to previous restraints, although to prevent them may have been the main purpose . . . . We admit that in many places and in ordinary times the defendants in saying all that was said in the circular would have been within their constitutional rights. But the character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done. . . . 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 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.”

Justice Holmes, along with Justice Brandeis, soon went into dissent in their views that the majority of the Court was misapplying the legal standards thus expressed to uphold suppression of speech that offered no threat to organized institutions. 17 Footnote Debs v. United States, 249 U.S. 211 (1919) ; Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919) ; Schaefer v. United States, 251 U.S. 466 (1920) ; Pierce v. United States, 252 U.S. 239 (1920) ; United States ex rel. Milwaukee Social Democratic Pub. Co. v. Burleson, 255 U.S. 407 (1921) . A state statute similar to the federal one was upheld in Gilbert v. Minnesota, 254 U.S. 325 (1920) . But it was with the Court’s assumption that the Fourteenth Amendment restrained the power of the states to suppress speech and press that the doctrines developed. 18 Footnote Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925) ; Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927) . The Brandeis and Holmes dissents in both cases were important formulations of speech and press principles. At first, Holmes and Brandeis remained in dissent, but, in Fiske v. Kansas , 19 Footnote 274 U.S. 380 (1927) . the Court sustained a First Amendment type of claim in a state case, and in Stromberg v. California , 20 Footnote 283 U.S. 359 (1931) . By contrast, it was not until 1965 that a federal statute was held unconstitutional under the First Amendment . Lamont v. Postmaster General, 381 U.S. 301 (1965) . See also United States v. Robel, 389 U.S. 258 (1967) . voided a state statute on grounds of its interference with free speech. 21 Footnote See also Near v. Minnesota ex rel. Olson, 283 U.S. 697 (1931) ; Herndon v. Lowry, 301 U.S. 242 (1937) ; DeJonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353 (1937) ; Lovell v. City of Griffin, 303 U.S. 444 (1938) . State common law was also voided, with the Court in an opinion by Justice Black asserting that the First Amendment enlarged protections for speech, press, and religion beyond those enjoyed under English common law. 22 Footnote Bridges v. California, 314 U.S. 252, 263–68 (1941) (overturning contempt convictions of newspaper editor and others for publishing commentary on pending cases).

Development over the years since has been uneven, but by 1964 the Court could say with unanimity: “we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” 23 Footnote New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964) . And, in 1969, the Court said that the cases “have fashioned the principle that the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” 24 Footnote Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 447 (1969) . This development and its myriad applications are elaborated in the following sections.


The following state regulations pages link to this page.

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.
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  • “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 […]
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  • 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 […]
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  • Chicago (A-D)
  • Chicago (N-B)

IvyPanda. (2024, February 24). 123 Freedom of Speech Topics & Essay Examples.

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Table of Contents

Arguments for freedom: the many reasons why free speech is essential.

  • David Hudson

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.

“The matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other freedom”— that’s how Justice Benjamin Cardozo referred to freedom of speech. 

This eminent Justice is far from alone in his assessment of the lofty perch that free speech holds in the United States of America. Others have called it our blueprint for personal liberty and the cornerstone of a free society. Without freedom of speech, individuals could not criticize government officials, test their theories against those of others, counter negative expression with a different viewpoint, or express their individuality and autonomy. 

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” This freedom represents the essence of personal freedom and individual liberty. It remains vitally important, because freedom of speech is inextricably intertwined with freedom of thought. 

Freedom of speech is closely connected to freedom of thought, an essential tool for democratic self-governance.

“First Amendment freedoms are most in danger when the government seeks to control thought or to justify its laws for that impermissible end,” warned Justice Anthony Kennedy in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002). “The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.”

There are numerous reasons why the First Amendment has a preferred position in our pantheon of constitutional values.  Here are six.

Self-governance and a check against governmental abuse

Free speech theorists and scholars have advanced a number of reasons why freedom of speech is important. Philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn famously offered that freedom of speech is essential for individuals to freely engage in debate so that they can make informed choices about self-government. Justice Louis Brandeis expressed this sentiment in his concurring opinion in  Whitney v. California (1927): “[F]reedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.”

In other words, freedom of speech is important for the proper functioning of a constitutional democracy. Meiklejohn advocated these ideas in his seminal 1948 work, “ Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government .” Closely related to this is the idea that freedom of speech serves as a check against abuse by government officials. Professor Vincent Blasi referred to this as “the checking value” of free speech. 

Liberty and self-fulfillment

The self-governance rationale is only one of many reasons why freedom of speech is considered so important. Another reason is that freedom of speech is key to individual fulfillment. Some refer to this as the “liberty theory” of the First Amendment.

Free-speech theorist C. Edwin Baker writes that “speech or other self-expressive conduct is protected not as a means to achieve a collective good but because of its value to the individual.” Justice Thurgood Marshall eloquently advanced the individual fulfillment theory of freedom of speech in his concurring opinion in the prisoner rights case  Procunier v. Martinez (1974) when he wrote: “The First Amendment serves not only the needs of the polity, but also those of the human spirit—a spirit that demands self-expression. Such expression is an integral part of the development of ideas and a sense of identity. To suppress expression is to reject the basic human desire for recognition and affront the individual’s worth and dignity.”

The search for truth and the ‘marketplace of ideas’ metaphor

Still another reason for elevating freedom of speech to a prominent place in our constitutional values is that it ensures a search for truth. 

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FIRE's Guide to Free Speech on Campus

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Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes expressed this idea in his “Great Dissent” in  Abrams v. United States (1919) when he wrote that “the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade of ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” This language from Holmes led to one of the most pervasive metaphors in First Amendment jurisprudence—that of the “marketplace of ideas.” 

This concept did not originate with Holmes, as John Milton in the 17th century and John Stuart Mill in the 19th century advanced the idea that speech is essential in the search for truth in their respective works, “Areopagitica” (1644) and “On Liberty” (1859). Milton famously wrote: “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple, whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” For his part, Mill warned of the “peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion” explaining that “[i]f the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” 

Informational theory

The marketplace metaphor is helpful but incomplete. Critics point out that over the course of history, truth may not always prevail over false ideas. For example, Mill warned that truth sometimes doesn’t triumph over “persecution.” Furthermore, more powerful individuals may have greater access to the marketplace and devalue the contributions of others. Another critique comes from those who advocate the informational theory of free speech. 

Modern laboratory with high-end equipment

Coronavirus and the failure of the 'Marketplace of Ideas'

“If finding objective truth were the only value of freedom of expression, there would be little value to studying history,”  explains Greg Lukianoff of FIRE . “ Most of human thought in history has been mistaken about its assumptions and beliefs about the world and each other; nevertheless, understanding things like superstitions, folk medicine, and apocryphal family histories has significance and value.” 

Under this theory, there is great value in learning and appreciating what people believe and how they process information. Lukianoff calls the metaphor for the informational theory of free speech “the lab in the looking glass.” The ultimate goal is “to know as much about us and our world as we can,” because it is vitally “important to know what people really believe, especially when the belief is perplexing or troubling.”

Safety valve theory

Another reason why freedom of speech is important relates to what has been termed the “safety valve” theory. This perspective advances the idea that it is good to allow individuals to express themselves fully and blow off steam.

If individuals are deprived of the ability to express themselves, they may undertake violent means as a way to draw attention to their causes or protests. Justice Brandeis advanced the safety valve theory of free speech in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California (1927) when he wrote:

Those who won our independence believed . . . that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies.

Tolerance theory

Free speech has also been construed to promote the virtue of tolerance: If we tolerate a wide range of speech and ideas, this will promote greater acceptance, self-restraint, and a diversity of ideas. 

Lee Bollinger advanced this theory in his 1986 work “The Tolerant Society.” This theory helps explain why we should tolerate even extremist speech. As Justice Holmes wrote in his dissent in  United States v. Schwimmer (1929), freedom of speech means “freedom for the thought that we hate.” This means that we often must tolerate extremist speech. As Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. wrote in  Snyder v. Phelps (2011), we don’t punish the extremist speaker; instead “we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”

Freedom of speech holds a special place in American law and society for many good reasons.

As Rodney Smolla writes in “Free Speech in an Open Society,” “[t]here is no logical reason . . . why the preferred position of freedom of speech might not be buttressed by multiple rationales.” Freedom of speech is closely connected to freedom of thought, an essential tool for democratic self-governance; it leads to a search for truth; it helps people express their individuality; and it promotes a tolerant society open to different viewpoints. 

In sum, it captures the essence of a free and open society.

  • Free Speech

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.

Title IX scales of justice with a finger on the scale

BREAKING: New Title IX regulations undermine campus free speech and due process rights

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

STATEMENT: Title IX regs mean students less likely to receive justice

Stanford President Richard Saller teaching a class (left) and Provost Jennifer Martinez

Stanford president and provost cheer free expression in open letter to incoming class

Black and white photo of the Stanford campus with a pie chart indicating polling or data

FIRE survey shows Judge Duncan shoutdown had ‘chilling effect’ on Stanford students

Related articles, a third of stanford students say using violence to silence speech can be acceptable, press release, usc canceling valedictorian’s commencement speech looks like calculated censorship, victory: michigan town declares sept. 6 ‘first amendment day’ after fire sues its mayor for shouting down residents, no, the berkeley law student didn’t have a first amendment right to interrupt the dean’s backyard party.

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Freedom Of Speech - Essay Examples And Topic Ideas For Free

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How To Write an Essay About Freedom Of Speech

Understanding the concept of freedom of speech.

Before you start writing an essay about freedom of speech, it is important to understand what the concept entails. Freedom of speech, often considered a fundamental human right, is the ability to express one's opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship. Begin your essay by defining freedom of speech and its importance in a democratic society. You might also want to explore its historical origins, how it has evolved over time, and how it is implemented in different countries. This foundational understanding sets the stage for a more in-depth exploration of the topic.

Developing a Thesis Statement

A compelling essay on freedom of speech should have a clear and concise thesis statement. This statement should present your unique perspective or argument about freedom of speech. For instance, you might argue that freedom of speech is essential for democracy, or that there should be limitations to freedom of speech to prevent hate speech and misinformation. Your thesis will guide the direction of your essay and provide a central argument for your readers to consider.

Gathering Supporting Evidence

To support your thesis, gather relevant evidence and examples. This might include legal cases, historical examples, current events, or academic research. For example, if you are discussing the limitations of freedom of speech, you might examine specific legal cases that demonstrate the consequences of unchecked speech. This evidence is crucial as it backs up your argument and provides a solid foundation for your essay.

Analyzing Different Perspectives

An essay about freedom of speech should also consider different perspectives and counterarguments. This could include examining arguments for and against limitations on speech, such as national security concerns, hate speech laws, or the right to protest. Discussing these different viewpoints shows a comprehensive understanding of the topic and can strengthen your argument by demonstrating that you have considered various angles.

Concluding Your Essay

Your conclusion should summarize the main points of your essay and restate your thesis in light of the evidence and discussion provided. It's an opportunity to emphasize the importance of freedom of speech and its impact on society. You might also want to highlight any areas where further research or discussion is needed, or the potential future challenges to freedom of speech.

Final Review and Editing

After writing your essay, review and edit it for clarity, coherence, and accuracy. Ensure that your arguments are well-structured and supported by evidence. Pay attention to grammar and syntax to ensure your writing is clear and professional. Seeking feedback from others can also provide new insights and help polish your essay. A well-written essay on freedom of speech not only reflects your understanding of the topic but also your ability to engage critically with complex societal issues.

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Home — Essay Samples — Social Issues — Freedom of Speech — Why Freedom of Speech is Important


Why Freedom of Speech is Important

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Published: Sep 7, 2023

Words: 702 | Pages: 2 | 4 min read

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

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  • Essay on Freedom of Speech in English Free PDF download


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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. 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. 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 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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Topic: What freedom of speech means to me

Freedom of speech is one of the most fundamental rights we have in this great nation today. Our founding fathers came from a tyrannical rule and kept that in mind while framing the constitution we follow today. It was freedom of speech that allowed some of the greatest voices in history to get us to our free and prosperous country.

It is people like Bob Moses, Martin Luther King Jr., Lola Hendricks, Will Roscoe, Gloria Steinem and many other American activists that exercised this right to free speech to demand change in our now free and prosperous country. These names and many more have left their mark on this country, and for the better, I should add. You might not see it but everyday you, me, your friends, my friends, and people you don’t even know around the country are graciously enjoying this right. This leads me to my next subject on this matter. How do we have this right?

Many people exercise this right but not many people put much thought into how we are able to enjoy it in our homes, schools, and other environments in America. The answer to this is other people. We have a very large military that has stood strong for our rights for generations prior and many generations to come. These people, whether you recognize it or not, risk their lives, give everything up, leave their friends and families for long periods of time with the knowledge in their mind they might not come back, to fight for us. Not only for people they know but for everyone.

People don’t know even exist, but they do it anyway because they’re some of the bravest people on this planet. Freedom of speech to me is freedom itself. Without this right, I dare say we shouldn’t be considered free at all. It is the ability to make a change, the ability to love and to hate, to express anger or happiness. Freedom of speech is freedom itself.

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Academic Freedom and Free Speech Are Distinct. Both Matter.

essay of freedom of speech

All year we’ve bandied about phrases like “civil discourse,” “open inquiry,” “academic freedom,” and “free speech.” It’s time to clarify them, and what living by them requires.

“Civil discourse” and “open inquiry” name an aspiration to discourse where disagreements — even fierce ones — can spark mutual learning because we engage with each other earnestly and respectfully. They promise a world where good-faith arguments, directed toward truth-seeking, bound by standards of evidence and logic, and inclusive of all perspectives, are welcome — even when they run counter to a majority point of view.

If “civil discourse” and “open inquiry” are the “what” of good discourse on campus, “academic freedom” and “free speech” are the “how.” Often used interchangeably, both phrases name specific policy regimes governing types of speech, but there is a critical difference between them.

Academic freedom is a creature of colleges and universities and specifically protects the right to make arguments in academic contexts, subject to review of one’s work according to scholarly standards.

Free speech rights, in contrast, name a protection against governmental interference restricting speech in the public sphere. In the U.S., they are broadly defined by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The first set of protocols is organizational — The policies of universities; the second set is legal — governmental policy.

Academic spaces — including classrooms, labs, seminars, and public events sponsored by academic units — should resemble a courtroom. To achieve a verdict — Latin for “speaking the truth” — trials require witnesses for both sides.

So too in the academy. We should always want to hear the other side’s best arguments. This requires intellectual diversity — of methods, data sources, and normative frameworks, as well as viewpoints.

The need for multiple viewpoints is why academic freedom goes hand in hand with inclusion and belonging: Protecting and supporting the participation of people with diverse identities or divergent ideologies is necessary for robust academic inquiry.

But diversity of perspective doesn’t mean “anything goes.”

When a journal article is submitted without appropriate pursuit of the truth, the submission may be rejected or receive a “revise and resubmit” notice, an invitation to the author to try again. Speaker panels, too, can be judged to be ill-constructed and receive notice that further work is needed before they see the light of day.

These are not cases of cancellation or sanctioning — they reflect a legitimate evaluation of the contribution’s caliber with regard to truth-seeking.

Similarly, policies against classroom disruption, which protect the academic freedom required to sustain inquiry, do not violate free speech rights, because the classroom is not where free speech rights apply. Instead, policies against disruption protect the right of people to make the best argument they can, from whatever their point of view may be, in pursuit of the truth.

Yet free speech, including the right to protest, also matters on campus. How, why, and where should protests receive protection here?

At a public university, free speech rights follow directly from First Amendment rights. The state sponsorship of universities like U.C. Berkeley or UMass-Boston makes university leaders state representatives with formal legal obligations to respect free speech.

But at a private university, free speech rights are a privilege granted by the university in a public-spirited effort to contribute additional public spaces to those otherwise available for political debate — street corners, parks, some coffee shops, the Internet, and so on.

Though Harvard was founded by officials of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and technically continues to be legally accountable to the state legislature, Harvard is nonetheless considered a private university. As such, it is out of a public-spirited orientation that our University treats parts of the campus as the public sphere, where expression is broadly more protected than under the more constrained norms of academic freedom.

Speaking loosely, free speech rights apply in spaces and to events that are both extracurricular and public. These are, of course, fuzzy categories on a campus, hence our confusion.

For example: At the Harvard Kennedy School, the Institute of Politics clearly functions as a public forum, so protests against its speakers that adhere to the “time, place, and manner” restrictions on free speech on our campus can be expected and must be respected there.

Other public speaker events also fall into this category, as does speech that takes place in our outdoor public space. But what about key campus rituals — from Commencement, or Match Day in the medical school, or weekly Community Teas at the Divinity School?

To address these edge cases, we rely on the following principle: Wherever spaces and events are integral to academic work and experience, they should be off-limits to disruption.

But perhaps this rules out too much? With our harsh winters, for instance, perhaps we need indoor spaces that can serve as public forums, with sensible restrictions?

Such questions deserve our more direct attention. Maybe we need a campus map that identifies places and hours where free speech rights, rather than the protocols of academic freedom, apply.

Still, even under free speech norms, it’s not the case that anything goes. The fifth value in the University’s values statement assigns us “responsibility for the bonds and bridges that enable all to grow with and learn from one another.” As an ethical matter, this value should govern how we choose to express our political views.

Even when we passionately pursue a political cause, using public spaces at Harvard to do so, including Harvard-linked online fora, we do that as a member of this campus community, in compact and covenant with everyone else here.

We cannot forget: Our use of these spaces is a privilege. We should pay for that privilege by taking responsibility for using them in ways that sustain healthy relationships with one another.

Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and director of the Allen Lab for Democracy Renovation.

This piece is the second installment in a series that will identify and assess the difficult ethical questions surfaced by Harvard’s recent leadership crisis.

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Guest Essay

Is This the End of Academic Freedom?

essay of freedom of speech

By Paula Chakravartty and Vasuki Nesiah

Dr. Chakravartty is a professor of media, communication and culture at New York University, where Dr. Nesiah is a professor of practice in human rights and international law.

​At New York University, the spring semester began with a poetry reading. Students and faculty gathered in the atrium of Bobst Library. At that time, about 26,000 Palestinians had already been killed in Israel’s horrific war on Gaza; the reading was a collective act of bearing witness.

The last poem read aloud was titled “If I Must Die.” It was written, hauntingly, by a Palestinian poet and academic named Refaat Alareer who was killed weeks earlier by an Israeli airstrike. The poem ends: “If I must die, let it bring hope — let it be a tale.”

Soon after those lines were recited, the university administration shut the reading down . Afterward, we learned that students and faculty members were called into disciplinary meetings for participating in this apparently “disruptive” act; written warnings were issued.

We have both taught at N.Y.U. for over a decade and believe we are in a moment of unparalleled repression. Over the past six months, since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza, we have seen the university administration fail to adequately protect dissent on campus, actively squelching it instead. We believe what we are witnessing in response to student, staff and faculty opposition to the war violates the very foundations of academic freedom.

While N.Y.U. says that it remains committed to free expression on campus and that its rules about and approach to protest activity haven’t changed, students and faculty members in solidarity with the Palestinian people have found the campus environment alarmingly constrained.

About a week after Hamas’s attacks in October, the Grand Staircase in the Kimmel student center, a storied site of student protests , closed indefinitely; it has yet to reopen fully. A graduate student employee was reprimanded for putting up fliers in support of Palestinians on the student’s office door and ultimately took them down; that person is not the only N.Y.U. student to face some form of disciplinary consequence for pro-Palestinian speech or action. A resolution calling for the university to reaffirm protection of pro-Palestinian speech and civic activity on campus, passed by the elected Student Government Assembly in December, has apparently been stuck in a procedural black hole since.

The New York Police Department has become a pervasive presence on campus, with over 6,000 hours of officer presence added after the war broke out. Hundreds of faculty members have signed onto an open letter condemning the university’s “culture of fear about campus speech and activism.”

Such draconian interventions are direct threats to academic freedom.

At universities across the country, any criticism of Israel’s policies, expressions of solidarity with Palestinians, organized calls for a cease-fire or even pedagogy on the recent history of the land have all emerged as perilous speech. In a letter to university presidents in November, the A.C.L.U. expressed concern about “impermissible chilling of free speech and association on campus” in relation to pro-Palestinian student groups and views; since then, the atmosphere at colleges has become downright McCarthyite .

The donors, trustees, administrators and third parties who oppose pro-Palestinian speech seem to equate any criticism of the State of Israel — an occupying power under international law and one accused of committing war crimes — with antisemitism. To them, the norms of free speech are inherently problematic, and a broad definition of antisemitism is a tool for censorship . Outside funding has poured into horrifying doxxing and harassment campaigns. Pro-Israel surveillance groups like Canary Mission and CAMERA relentlessly target individuals and groups deemed antisemitic or critical of Israel. Ominous threats follow faculty and students for just expressing their opinions or living out their values.

To be clear, we abhor all expressions of antisemitism and wholeheartedly reject any role for antisemitism on our campuses. Equally, we believe that conflating criticism of Israel or Zionism with antisemitism is dangerous. Equating the criticism of any nation with inherent racism endangers basic democratic freedoms on and off campus. As the A.C.L.U. wrote in its November statement, a university “cannot fulfill its mission as a forum for vigorous debate” if it polices the views of faculty members and students, however much any of us may disagree with them or find them offensive.

In a wave of crackdowns on pro-Palestinian speech nationwide, students have had scholarships revoked, job offers pulled and student groups suspended. At Columbia, protesters have reported being sprayed by what they said was skunk, a chemical weapon used by the Israeli military; at Northwestern, two Black students faced criminal charges , later dropped, for publishing a pro-Palestinian newspaper parody; at Cornell, students were arrested during a peaceful protest . In a shocking episode of violence last fall, three Palestinian students , two of them wearing kaffiyehs, were shot while walking near the University of Vermont.

Many more cases of student repression on campuses are unfolding.

Academic freedom, as defined by the American Association of University Professors in the mid-20th century , provides protection for the pursuit of knowledge by faculty members, whose job is to educate, learn and research both inside and outside the academy. Not only does this resonate with the Constitution’s free speech protections ; international human rights law also affirms the centrality of academic freedom to the right to education and the institutional autonomy of educational institutions.

Across the United States, attacks on free speech are on the rise . In recent years, right-wing groups opposed to the teaching of critical race theory have tried to undermine these principles through measures including restrictions on the discussion of history and structural racism in curriculums, heightened scrutiny of lectures and courses that are seen to promote dissent and disciplinary procedures against academics who work on these topics.

What people may not realize is that speech critical of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies has long been censored, posing persistent challenges to those of us who uphold academic freedom. Well before Oct. 7, speech and action at N.Y.U. in support of Palestinians faced intense and undue scrutiny.

Our students are heeding Refaat Alareer’s call to bear witness. They are speaking out — writing statements, organizing protests and responding to a plausible threat of genocide with idealism and conviction. As faculty members, we believe that college should be a time when students are encouraged to ask big questions about justice and the future of humanity and to pursue answers however disquieting to the powerful.

Universities must be places where students have access to specialized knowledge that shapes contemporary debates, where faculty members are encouraged to be public intellectuals, even when, or perhaps especially when, they are expressing dissenting opinions speaking truth to power. Classrooms must allow for contextual learning, where rapidly mutating current events are put into a longer historical timeline.

This is a high-stakes moment. A century ago, attacks on open discussion of European antisemitism, the criminalization of dissent and the denial of Jewish histories of oppression and dispossession helped create the conditions for the Holocaust. One crucial “never again” lesson from that period is that the thought police can be dangerous. They can render vulnerable communities targets of oppression. They can convince the world that some lives are not as valuable as others, justifying mass slaughter.

It is no wonder that students across the country are protesting an unpopular and brutal war that, besides Israel, only the United States is capable of stopping. It is extraordinary that the very institutions that ought to safeguard their exercise of free speech are instead escalating surveillance and policing, working on ever more restrictive student conduct rules and essentially risking the death of academic freedom.

From the Vietnam War to apartheid South Africa, universities have been important places for open discussion and disagreement about government policies, the historical record, structural racism and settler colonialism. They have also long served as sites of protest. If the university cannot serve as an arena for such freedoms, the possibilities of democratic life inside and outside the university gates are not only impoverished but under threat of extinction.

Paula Chakravartty is a professor of media, communication and culture at New York University, where Vasuki Nesiah is a professor of practice in human rights and international law. Both are members of the executive committee of the N.Y.U. chapter of the American Association of University Professors and members of N.Y.U.’s Faculty for Justice in Palestine.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

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Will Cambridge Support Free Speech?

The university is investigating Nathan Cofnas, a research fellow who published a blog post advocating “race realism.” Were Cofnas to be dismissed, it would sound a warning to students and academics everywhere: even the world’s most renowned universities may no longer stand by their commitment to freedom of thought and discussion.

MELBOURNE – Nathan Cofnas is a research fellow in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His research is supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. He is also a college research associate at Emmanuel College. Working at the intersection of science and philosophy, he has published several papers in leading peer-reviewed journals. He also writes popular articles and posts on Substack .

In January, Cofnas published a post called “ Why We Need to Talk about the Right’s Stupidity Problem .” No one at Cambridge seems to have been bothered by his argument that people on the political right have, on average, lower intelligence than those on the left.

Some people at Cambridge were, however, very much bothered by Cofnas’s February post, “ A Guide for the Hereditarian Revolution .” To follow Cofnas’s “guide,” one must accept “race realism”: the view that heredity plays a role in the existing social and economic differences between different demographic groups. Only by challenging the taboo against race realism, Cofnas believes, can conservatives overcome “wokism,” which he sees as a barrier to understanding the causes of inequality and to allowing people to succeed on the basis of merit.

If Harvard University admitted students “under a colorblind system that judged applicants only by academic qualifications,” Cofnas asserted, Black people “would make up 0.7% of Harvard students.” He also wrote that in a meritocracy, the number of black professors at Harvard “would approach 0%.”

That post gave rise to a petition from Cambridge students demanding that the university dismiss Cofnas. The petition currently has about 1,200 signatures .

On February 16, the Master of Emmanuel College, Doug Chalmers, responded to the protests by saying that the college is committed to “providing an environment that is free from all discrimination.” The relevance of this comment is unclear; although there are many statements in Cofnas’s post that one can reasonably object to, it does not advocate racial discrimination. Importantly, though – or so it seemed at the time – Chalmers added that the college is also committed to “freedom of thought and expression,” and he acknowledged Cofnas’s “academic right, as enshrined by law, to write about his views.”


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On the same day, Professor Bhaskar Vira, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education at Cambridge, issued a brief statement that began: “Freedom of speech within the law is a right that sits at the heart of the University of Cambridge. We encourage our community to challenge ideas they disagree with and engage in rigorous debate.” He then made the obvious point that “the voice of one academic does not reflect the views of the whole university community,” adding that many staff and students “challenge the academic validity of the arguments presented.” His statement concluded by seeking to reassure students who were “understandably hurt and upset” by Cofnas’s views that “everyone at Cambridge has earned their place on merit and no one at this University should be made to feel like this.”

There was no suggestion, in the statements made by Chalmers or Vira, that either Emmanuel College or the University of Cambridge was considering dismissing Cofnas. Yet, in the face of continuing protests, both the college and the university bowed to the pressure and began their own inquiries, as did the Leverhulme Trust. The university’s inquiry and that of the Trust are, at the time of writing, ongoing, but on April 5 Cofnas received a letter notifying him that Emmanuel College had decided to terminate its association with him.

In justifying that decision, the letter informed Cofnas of the views of a committee that had been asked to consider his blog:

“The Committee first considered the meaning of the blog and concluded that it amounted to, or could reasonably be construed as amounting to, a rejection of Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI and EDI) policies ... The Committee concluded that the core mission of the College was to achieve educational excellence and that diversity and inclusion were inseparable from that. The ideas promoted by the blog therefore represented a challenge to the College’s core values and mission.”

These sentences imply that at Emmanuel College, freedom of expression does not include the freedom to challenge its DEI policies, and that challenging them may be grounds for dismissal. That is an extraordinary statement for a tertiary institution to make. It is even more surprising given that the adoption of DEI policies is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Emmanuel College’s decision does not prevent Cofnas from continuing to hold his research fellowship in the Faculty of Philosophy. But that would cease to be the case if the university inquiry were to reach the same conclusion as the college.

The academic world will be watching what happens. Were the University of Cambridge to dismiss Cofnas, it would sound a warning to students and academics everywhere: when it comes to controversial topics, even the world’s most renowned universities can no longer be relied upon to stand by their commitment to defend freedom of thought and discussion.


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