Monday night, a student in my Law and Public Affairs class asked a question I get every so often. We were talking about free speech, and she wanted to know whether the right to say one’s piece extended to speech that “offended” people. It was pretty clear that she expected some variation of “well, no, there are limits.”
As I explained to her, among our cherished American rights, one that we don’t have is the right not to be offended. A right to expression that could be trumped by someone’s hurt feelings–or by a government concerned about someone’s hurt feelings–would not be a right at all.
This is the same point President Obama made forcefully in his speech at the UN yesterday. Speaking of the offensive video that sparked riots in the Middle East, he acknowledged that it was offensive–not just to Muslims, but to Americans. But he defended America’s approach to liberty, and denounced the notion that violence could ever be an appropriate response to even offensive or “blasphemous” speech.
The President also made a couple of points less often noted, but worth considering: In our globally-integrated, increasingly connected world, people without a tradition of free speech had better get used to hearing things they don’t like, because even authoritarian governments can no longer control expression. As technology improves, what little control they have will further diminish.
And a world where people respond irrationally and violently to speech that offends them is a world controlled by the worst elements of humanity, a world that has handed over to the haters the power to foment uprisings and debase civilizations. Such reactions to “offensive” speech are precisely what the speakers are trying to provoke–and by obliging them, those who disagree have given them power they could not otherwise attain.
In the U.S. and other countries with a tradition of free speech, we have learned that the most effective weapon against speech that offends us is to ignore it.