Free Speech Means Free

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.


  1. Thank you for reminding me how inspiring the President’s remarks in defense of America’s belief in the freedom of speech before the United Nations were and how Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, in representing
    the ideals of the United States, represented
    and in his legacy continues to represent,
    the best in it’s citizens.

  2. A few days ago I heard a law school professor (didn’t recognize his name) opine that under First Amendment jurisprudence, the “yelling fire in a crowded theater” exception to free speech protections has historically been very narrowly interpreted to require clear immediacy of threat of violance/harm. He wnt on to say that in a world of instant and widespread communications….where presumably the “theater” would now include a group of folks halfway around the world already holding Molotov cocktails, the concept of immediacy might have to be expanded. A pretty frightening notion, in my opinion.

  3. So much of the world has no tradition or real understanding of free speech. Their disagreements historically have been resolved with violence, wars, imprisonment, official torture, and capital punishment. An old testament and/or cultural devotion to ‘an eye for an eye’ is all they’ve ever known.

    It happens here too. Puritans seeking religious freedom sought to impose THEIR religion on all American colonists. Old habits die hard. Americans are still learning – too slowly – the meaning of constitutional rights. And some like Timothy McVey and anti-abortion bomb throwers still use violence against those with whom they disagree.

    A resolution affirming American values and rights that included ‘tolerance’ could not gain enough votes to pass our state legislature several years ago. Opponents explained there were some views they just could not tolerate. It was one of the more depressing moments in state legislative history, but at least no one was sent to the guillotine for their views.

    We’ve come a long way and are an example to the world whenever election days and presidential inaugurals underscore how to change government and laws without wars and deaths. But the battle to protect our constitutional bill of rights will ever be with us. Please join and contribute to the ACLU of Indiana at as if our liberties depend on you because they do. The price of liberty is not only eternal vigilance but also investment if we hope to protect and improve the dividends.

  4. Nancy,

    The ACLU does a lot of good things (like defending free speech), but it is very selective on which constitutional rights it will defend and which interpretations of those rights it will fight for. There is nothing wrong with that. But when an organization misrepresents itself as fighting for ALL constitutional rights when in fact it does anything but, there is a problem of misrepresentation. If the ACLU consistently stood up for constitutional rights, my Libertarian friends would strongly support the ACLU. But, to say the least, they are not a fan of the organization because of the ACLU’s inconsistency.

  5. Paul – ACLU, like everyone, has limited resources. ACLU Legal director Ken Falk told the Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette recently that the organization’s scarce resources make it necessary to consider whether a case will have a beneficial effect beyond the plaintiffs represented. The office receives 800 requests a month, so difficult choices must be made.

    However, the over-riding goal is to stop unconstitutional practices. ACLU earns an undeserved reputation where it represents plaintiffs who aren’t particularly sympathetic but whose constitutional rights must be protected if the constitution is to be protected.

    “The point to note is that we are not a political organization,” Falk said. “We represent prisoners; we represent police. We’ve represented Planned Parenthood and right-to-lifers. We represent those whose constitutional rights we believe are being violated or are at risk.”

    In our neighboring state, Jewish lawyers for the ACLU defended the rights of anti-Semites to
    hold a pro-Nazi parade in the Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois. Few individuals or organizations would put their own organization’s financial future on the line to protect the speech they hate. But ACLU did and lost 30,000 of its members nation-wide. ACLU knew there would be a price to pay for such constitutional advocacy, but they defended the Nazi’s constitutional rights anyway. That’s a real commitment to be liberty’s lawyer.

    The ACLU is a profile in courage on a daily basis, and all of us are in their debt. I encourage you to join me in paying dues to invest in liberty’s future.

  6. I think you’re neglecting the philosophically inconvenient instances in Chaplinski v NH — forms of speech “which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace”, that “are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality”. Those appear to be where the (presently understood) limits are.

    Problematically, blasphemy might potentially be considered in such category. Even in the US, while the ruling in Burstyn v. Wilson appears to block prior restraint over blasphemy/sacrilege, it does not appear to address the question of a law punishing it as a past offense.

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