a paragraph on freedom of speech

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Freedom of Speech

By: History.com Editors

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

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

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

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

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

First Amendment

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

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

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

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

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

Flag Burning

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

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

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

When Isn’t Speech Protected?

Not all speech is protected under the First Amendment.

Forms of speech that aren’t protected include:

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Expression

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

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

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

Free Speech in Schools

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

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

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

a paragraph on freedom of speech

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Freedom of Speech

[ Editor’s Note: The following new entry by Jeffrey W. Howard replaces the former entry on this topic by the previous author. ]

Human beings have significant interests in communicating what they think to others, and in listening to what others have to say. These interests make it difficult to justify coercive restrictions on people’s communications, plausibly grounding a moral right to speak (and listen) to others that is properly protected by law. That there ought to be such legal protections for speech is uncontroversial among political and legal philosophers. But disagreement arises when we turn to the details. What are the interests or values that justify this presumption against restricting speech? And what, if anything, counts as an adequate justification for overcoming the presumption? This entry is chiefly concerned with exploring the philosophical literature on these questions.

The entry begins by distinguishing different ideas to which the term “freedom of speech” can refer. It then reviews the variety of concerns taken to justify freedom of speech. Next, the entry considers the proper limits of freedom of speech, cataloging different views on when and why restrictions on communication can be morally justified, and what considerations are relevant when evaluating restrictions. Finally, it considers the role of speech intermediaries in a philosophical analysis of freedom of speech, with special attention to internet platforms.

1. What is Freedom of Speech?

2.1 listener theories, 2.2 speaker theories, 2.3 democracy theories, 2.4 thinker theories, 2.5 toleration theories, 2.6 instrumental theories: political abuse and slippery slopes, 2.7 free speech skepticism, 3.1 absoluteness, coverage, and protection, 3.2 the limits of free speech: external constraints, 3.3 the limits of free speech: internal constraints, 3.4 proportionality: chilling effects and political abuse, 3.5 necessity: the counter-speech alternative, 4. the future of free speech theory: platform ethics, other internet resources, related entries.

In the philosophical literature, the terms “freedom of speech”, “free speech”, “freedom of expression”, and “freedom of communication” are mostly used equivalently. This entry will follow that convention, notwithstanding the fact that these formulations evoke subtly different phenomena. For example, it is widely understood that artistic expressions, such as dancing and painting, fall within the ambit of this freedom, even though they don’t straightforwardly seem to qualify as speech , which intuitively connotes some kind of linguistic utterance (see Tushnet, Chen, & Blocher 2017 for discussion). Still, they plainly qualify as communicative activity, conveying some kind of message, however vague or open to interpretation it may be.

Yet the extension of “free speech” is not fruitfully specified through conceptual analysis alone. The quest to distinguish speech from conduct, for the purpose of excluding the latter from protection, is notoriously thorny (Fish 1994: 106), despite some notable attempts (such as Greenawalt 1989: 58ff). As John Hart Ely writes concerning Vietnam War protesters who incinerated their draft cards, such activity is “100% action and 100% expression” (1975: 1495). It is only once we understand why we should care about free speech in the first place—the values it instantiates or serves—that we can evaluate whether a law banning the burning of draft cards (or whatever else) violates free speech. It is the task of a normative conception of free speech to offer an account of the values at stake, which in turn can illuminate the kinds of activities wherein those values are realized, and the kinds of restrictions that manifest hostility to those values. For example, if free speech is justified by the value of respecting citizens’ prerogative to hear many points of view and to make up their own minds, then banning the burning of draft cards to limit the views to which citizens will be exposed is manifestly incompatible with that purpose. If, in contrast, such activity is banned as part of a generally applied ordinance restricting fires in public, it would likely raise no free-speech concerns. (For a recent analysis of this issue, see Kramer 2021: 25ff).

Accordingly, the next section discusses different conceptions of free speech that arise in the philosophical literature, each oriented to some underlying moral or political value. Before turning to the discussion of those conceptions, some further preliminary distinctions will be useful.

First, we can distinguish between the morality of free speech and the law of free speech. In political philosophy, one standard approach is to theorize free speech as a requirement of morality, tracing the implications of such a theory for law and policy. Note that while this is the order of justification, it need not be the order of investigation; it is perfectly sensible to begin by studying an existing legal protection for speech (such as the First Amendment in the U.S.) and then asking what could justify such a protection (or something like it).

But of course morality and law can diverge. The most obvious way they can diverge is when the law is unjust. Existing legal protections for speech, embodied in the positive law of particular jurisdictions, may be misguided in various ways. In other words, a justified legal right to free speech, and the actual legal right to free speech in the positive law of a particular jurisdiction, can come apart. In some cases, positive legal rights might protect too little speech. For example, some jurisdictions’ speech laws make exceptions for blasphemy, such that criminalizing blasphemy does not breach the legal right to free speech within that legal system. But clearly one could argue that a justified legal right to free speech would not include any such exception. In other cases, positive legal rights might perhaps protect too much speech. Consider the fact that, as a matter of U.S. constitutional precedent, the First Amendment broadly protects speech that expresses or incites racial or religious hatred. Plainly we could agree that this is so as a matter of positive law while disagreeing about whether it ought to be so. (This is most straightforwardly true if we are legal positivists. These distinctions are muddied by moralistic theories of constitutional interpretation, which enjoin us to interpret positive legal rights in a constitutional text partly through the prism of our favorite normative political theory; see Dworkin 1996.)

Second, we can distinguish rights-based theories of free speech from non-rights-based theories. For many liberals, the legal right to free speech is justified by appealing to an underlying moral right to free speech, understood as a natural right held by all persons. (Some use the term human right equivalently—e.g., Alexander 2005—though the appropriate usage of that term is contested.) The operative notion of a moral right here is that of a claim-right (to invoke the influential analysis of Hohfeld 1917); it thereby correlates to moral duties held by others (paradigmatically, the state) to respect or protect the right. Such a right is natural in that it exerts normative force independently of whether anyone thinks it does, and regardless of whether it is codified into the law. A tyrannical state that imprisons dissidents acts unjustly, violating moral rights, even if there is no legal right to freedom of expression in its legal system.

For others, the underlying moral justification for free speech law need not come in the form of a natural moral right. For example, consequentialists might favor a legal right to free speech (on, e.g., welfare-maximizing grounds) without thinking that it tracks any underlying natural right. Or consider democratic theorists who have defended legal protections for free speech as central to democracy. Such theorists may think there is an underlying natural moral right to free speech, but they need not (especially if they hold an instrumental justification for democracy). Or consider deontologists who have argued that free speech functions as a kind of side-constraint on legitimate state action, requiring that the state always justify its decisions in a manner that respects citizens’ autonomy (Scanlon 1972). This theory does not cast free speech as a right, but rather as a principle that forbids the creation of laws that restrict speech on certain grounds. In the Hohfeldian analysis (Hohfeld 1917), such a principle may be understood as an immunity rather than a claim-right (Scanlon 2013: 402). Finally, some “minimalists” (to use a designation in Cohen 1993) favor legal protection for speech principally in response to government malice, corruption, and incompetence (see Schauer 1982; Epstein 1992; Leiter 2016). Such theorists need not recognize any fundamental moral right, either.

Third, among those who do ground free speech in a natural moral right, there is scope for disagreement about how tightly the law should mirror that right (as with any right; see Buchanan 2013). It is an open question what the precise legal codification of the moral right to free speech should involve. A justified legal right to freedom of speech may not mirror the precise contours of the natural moral right to freedom of speech. A raft of instrumental concerns enters the downstream analysis of what any justified legal right should look like; hence a defensible legal right to free speech may protect more speech (or indeed less speech) than the underlying moral right that justifies it. For example, even if the moral right to free speech does not protect so-called hate speech, such speech may still merit legal protection in the final analysis (say, because it would be too risky to entrust states with the power to limit those communications).

2. Justifying Free Speech

I will now examine several of the morally significant considerations taken to justify freedom of expression. Note that while many theorists have built whole conceptions of free speech out of a single interest or value alone, pluralism in this domain remains an option. It may well be that a plurality of interests serves to justify freedom of expression, properly understood (see, influentially, Emerson 1970 and Cohen 1993).

Suppose a state bans certain books on the grounds that it does not want us to hear the messages or arguments contained within them. Such censorship seems to involve some kind of insult or disrespect to citizens—treating us like children instead of adults who have a right to make up our own minds. This insight is fundamental in the free speech tradition. On this view, the state wrongs citizens by arrogating to itself the authority to decide what messages they ought to hear. That is so even if the state thinks that the speech will cause harm. As one author puts it,

the government may not suppress speech on the ground that the speech is likely to persuade people to do something that the government considers harmful. (Strauss 1991: 335)

Why are restrictions on persuasive speech objectionable? For some scholars, the relevant wrong here is a form of disrespect for citizens’ basic capacities (Dworkin 1996: 200; Nagel 2002: 44). For others, the wrong here inheres in a violation of the kind of relationship the state should have with its people: namely, that it should always act from a view of them as autonomous, and so entitled to make up their own minds (Scanlon 1972). It would simply be incompatible with a view of ourselves as autonomous—as authors of our own lives and choices—to grant the state the authority to pre-screen which opinions, arguments, and perspectives we should be allowed to think through, allowing us access only to those of which it approves.

This position is especially well-suited to justify some central doctrines of First Amendment jurisprudence. First, it justifies the claim that freedom of expression especially implicates the purposes with which the state acts. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons why the state might restrict speech (so-called “time, place, and manner” restrictions)—for example, noise curfews in residential neighborhoods, which do not raise serious free speech concerns. Yet when the state restricts speech with the purpose of manipulating the communicative environment and controlling the views to which citizens are exposed, free speech is directly affronted (Rubenfeld 2001; Alexander 2005; Kramer 2021). To be sure, purposes are not all that matter for free speech theory. For example, the chilling effects of otherwise justified speech regulations (discussed below) are seldom intended. But they undoubtedly matter.

Second, this view justifies the related doctrines of content neutrality and viewpoint neutrality (see G. Stone 1983 and 1987) . Content neutrality is violated when the state bans discussion of certain topics (“no discussion of abortion”), whereas viewpoint neutrality is violated when the state bans advocacy of certain views (“no pro-choice views may be expressed”). Both affront free speech, though viewpoint-discrimination is especially egregious and so even harder to justify. While listener autonomy theories are not the only theories that can ground these commitments, they are in a strong position to account for their plausibility. Note that while these doctrines are central to the American approach to free speech, they are less central to other states’ jurisprudence (see A. Stone 2017).

Third, this approach helps us see that free speech is potentially implicated whenever the state seeks to control our thoughts and the processes through which we form beliefs. Consider an attempt to ban Marx’s Capital . As Marx is deceased, he is probably not wronged through such censorship. But even if one held idiosyncratic views about posthumous rights, such that Marx were wronged, it would be curious to think this was the central objection to such censorship. Those with the gravest complaint would be the living adults who have the prerogative to read the book and make up their own minds about it. Indeed free speech may even be implicated if the state banned watching sunsets or playing video games on the grounds that is disapproved of the thoughts to which such experiences might give rise (Alexander 2005: 8–9; Kramer 2021: 22).

These arguments emphasize the noninstrumental imperative of respecting listener autonomy. But there is an instrumental version of the view. Our autonomy interests are not merely respected by free speech; they are promoted by an environment in which we learn what others have to say. Our interests in access to information is served by exposure to a wide range of viewpoints about both empirical and normative issues (Cohen 1993: 229), which help us reflect on what goals to choose and how best to pursue them. These informational interests are monumental. As Raz suggests, if we had to choose whether to express our own views on some question, or listen to the rest of humanity’s views on that question, we would choose the latter; it is our interest as listeners in the public good of a vibrant public discourse that, he thinks, centrally justifies free speech (1991).

Such an interest in acquiring justified beliefs, or in accessing truth, can be defended as part of a fully consequentialist political philosophy. J.S. Mill famously defends free speech instrumentally, appealing to its epistemic benefits in On Liberty . Mill believes that, given our fallibility, we should routinely keep an open mind as to whether a seemingly false view may actually be true, or at least contain some valuable grain of truth. And even where a proposition is manifestly false, there is value in allowing its expression so that we can better apprehend why we take it to be false (1859: chapter 2), enabled through discursive conflict (cf. Simpson 2021). Mill’s argument focuses especially on the benefits to audiences:

It is is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. (1859: chapter 2, p. 94)

These views are sometimes associated with the idea of a “marketplace of ideas”, whereby the open clash of views inevitably leads to the correct ones winning out in debate. Few in the contemporary literature holds such a strong teleological thesis about the consequences of unrestricted debate (e.g., see Brietzke 1997; cf. Volokh 2011). Much evidence from behavioral economics and social psychology, as well as insights about epistemic injustice from feminist epistemology, strongly suggest that human beings’ rational powers are seriously limited. Smug confidence in the marketplace of ideas belies this. Yet it is doubtful that Mill held such a strong teleological thesis (Gordon 1997). Mill’s point was not that unrestricted discussion necessarily leads people to acquire the truth. Rather, it is simply the best mechanism available for ascertaining the truth, relative to alternatives in which some arbiter declares what he sees as true and suppresses what he sees as false (see also Leiter 2016).

Note that Mill’s views on free speech in chapter 2 in On Liberty are not simply the application of the general liberty principle defended in chapter 1 of that work; his view is not that speech is anodyne and therefore seldom runs afoul of the harm principle. The reason a separate argument is necessary in chapter 2 is precisely that he is carving out a partial qualification of the harm principle for speech (on this issue see Jacobson 2000, Schauer 2011b, and Turner 2014). On Mill’s view, plenty of harmful speech should still be allowed. Imminently dangerous speech, where there is no time for discussion before harm eventuates, may be restricted; but where there is time for discussion, it must be allowed. Hence Mill’s famous example that vociferous criticism of corn dealers as

starvers of the poor…ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer. (1859: chapter 3, p. 100)

The point is not that such speech is harmless; it’s that the instrumental benefits of permitting its expressions—and exposing its falsehood through public argument—justify the (remaining) costs.

Many authors have unsurprisingly argued that free speech is justified by our interests as speakers . This family of arguments emphasizes the role of speech in the development and exercise of our personal autonomy—our capacity to be the reflective authors of our own lives (Baker 1989; Redish 1982; Rawls 2005). Here an emphasis on freedom of expression is apt; we have an “expressive interest” (Cohen 1993: 224) in declaring our views—about the good life, about justice, about our identity, and about other aspects of the truth as we see it.

Our interests in self-expression may not always depend on the availability of a willing audience; we may have interests simply in shouting from the rooftops to declare who we are and what we believe, regardless of who else hears us. Hence communications to oneself—for example, in a diary or journal—are plausibly protected from interference (Redish 1992: 30–1; Shiffrin 2014: 83, 93; Kramer 2021: 23).

Yet we also have distinctive interests in sharing what we think with others. Part of how we develop our conceptions of the good life, forming judgments about how to live, is precisely through talking through the matter with others. This “deliberative interest” in directly served through opportunities to tell others what we think, so that we can learn from their feedback (Cohen 1993). Such encounters also offer opportunities to persuade others to adopt our views, and indeed to learn through such discussions who else already shares our views (Raz 1991).

Speech also seems like a central way in which we develop our capacities. This, too, is central to J.S. Mill’s defense of free speech, enabling people to explore different perspectives and points of view (1859). Hence it seems that when children engage in speech, to figure out what they think and to use their imagination to try out different ways of being in the world, they are directly engaging this interest. That explains the intuition that children, and not just adults, merit at least some protection under a principle of freedom of speech.

Note that while it is common to refer to speaker autonomy , we could simply refer to speakers’ capacities. Some political liberals hold that an emphasis on autonomy is objectionably Kantian or otherwise perfectionist, valorizing autonomy as a comprehensive moral ideal in a manner that is inappropriate for a liberal state (Cohen 1993: 229; Quong 2011). For such theorists, an undue emphasis on autonomy is incompatible with ideals of liberal neutrality toward different comprehensive conceptions of the good life (though cf. Shiffrin 2014: 81).

If free speech is justified by the importance of our interests in expressing ourselves, this justifies negative duties to refrain from interfering with speakers without adequate justification. Just as with listener theories, a strong presumption against content-based restrictions, and especially against viewpoint discrimination, is a clear requirement of the view. For the state to restrict citizens’ speech on the grounds that it disfavors what they have to say would affront the equal freedom of citizens. Imagine the state were to disallow the expression of Muslim or Jewish views, but allow the expression of Christian views. This would plainly transgress the right to freedom of expression, by valuing certain speakers’ interests in expressing themselves over others.

Many arguments for the right to free speech center on its special significance for democracy (Cohen 1993; Heinze 2016: Heyman 2009; Sunstein 1993; Weinstein 2011; Post 1991, 2009, 2011). It is possible to defend free speech on the noninstrumental ground that it is necessary to respect agents as democratic citizens. To restrict citizens’ speech is to disrespect their status as free and equal moral agents, who have a moral right to debate and decide the law for themselves (Rawls 2005).

Alternatively (or additionally), one can defend free speech on the instrumental ground that free speech promotes democracy, or whatever values democracy is meant to serve. So, for example, suppose the purpose of democracy is the republican one of establishing a state of non-domination between relationally egalitarian citizens; free speech can be defended as promoting that relation (Whitten 2022; Bonotti & Seglow 2022). Or suppose that democracy is valuable because of its role in promoting just outcomes (Arneson 2009) or tending to track those outcomes in a manner than is publicly justifiable (Estlund 2008) or is otherwise epistemically valuable (Landemore 2013).

Perhaps free speech doesn’t merely respect or promote democracy; another framing is that it is constitutive of it (Meiklejohn 1948, 1960; Heinze 2016). As Rawls says: “to restrict or suppress free political speech…always implies at least a partial suspension of democracy” (2005: 254). On this view, to be committed to democracy just is , in part, to be committed to free speech. Deliberative democrats famously contend that voting merely punctuates a larger process defined by a commitment to open deliberation among free and equal citizens (Gutmann & Thompson 2008). Such an unrestricted discussion is marked not by considerations of instrumental rationality and market forces, but rather, as Habermas puts it, “the unforced force of the better argument” (1992 [1996: 37]). One crucial way in which free speech might be constitutive of democracy is if it serves as a legitimation condition . On this view, without a process of open public discourse, the outcomes of the democratic decision-making process lack legitimacy (Dworkin 2009, Brettschneider 2012: 75–78, Cohen 1997, and Heinze 2016).

Those who justify free speech on democratic grounds may view this as a special application of a more general insight. For example, Scanlon’s listener theory (discussed above) contends that the state must always respect its citizens as capable of making up their own minds (1972)—a position with clear democratic implications. Likewise, Baker is adamant that both free speech and democracy are justified by the same underlying value of autonomy (2009). And while Rawls sees the democratic role of free speech as worthy of emphasis, he is clear that free speech is one of several basic liberties that enable the development and exercise of our moral powers: our capacities for a sense of justice and for the rational pursuit a lifeplan (2005). In this way, many theorists see the continuity between free speech and our broader interests as moral agents as a virtue, not a drawback (e.g., Kendrick 2017).

Even so, some democracy theorists hold that democracy has a special role in a theory of free speech, such that political speech in particular merits special protection (for an overview, see Barendt 2005: 154ff). One consequence of such views is that contributions to public discourse on political questions merit greater protection under the law (Sunstein 1993; cf. Cohen 1993: 227; Alexander 2005: 137–8). For some scholars, this may reflect instrumental anxieties about the special danger that the state will restrict the political speech of opponents and dissenters. But for others, an emphasis on political speech seems to reflect a normative claim that such speech is genuinely of greater significance, meriting greater protection, than other kinds of speech.

While conventional in the free speech literature, it is artificial to separate out our interests as speakers, listeners, and democratic citizens. Communication, and the thinking that feeds into it and that it enables, invariably engages our interests and activities across all these capacities. This insight is central to Seana Shiffrin’s groundbreaking thinker-based theory of freedom of speech, which seeks to unify the range of considerations that have informed the traditional theories (2014). Like other theories (e.g., Scanlon 1978, Cohen 1993), Shiffrin’s theory is pluralist in the range of interests it appeals to. But it offers a unifying framework that explains why this range of interests merits protection together.

On Shiffrin’s view, freedom of speech is best understood as encompassing both freedom of communication and freedom of thought, which while logically distinct are mutually reinforcing and interdependent (Shiffrin 2014: 79). Shiffrin’s account involves several profound claims about the relation between communication and thought. A central contention is that “free speech is essential to the development, functioning, and operation of thinkers” (2014: 91). This is, in part, because we must often externalize our ideas to articulate them precisely and hold them at a distance where we can evaluate them (p. 89). It is also because we work out what we think largely by talking it through with others. Such communicative processes may be monological, but they are typically dialogical; speaker and listener interests are thereby mutually engaged in an ongoing manner that cannot be neatly disentangled, as ideas are ping-ponged back and forth. Moreover, such discussions may concern democratic politics—engaging our interests as democratic citizens—but of course they need not. Aesthetics, music, local sports, the existence of God—these all are encompassed (2014: 92–93). Pace prevailing democratic theories,

One’s thoughts about political affairs are intrinsically and ex ante no more and no less central to the human self than thoughts about one’s mortality or one’s friends. (Shiffrin 2014: 93)

The other central aspect of Shiffrin’s view appeals to the necessity of communication for successfully exercising our moral agency. Sincere communication enables us

to share needs, emotions, intentions, convictions, ambitions, desires, fantasies, disappointments, and judgments. Thereby, we are enabled to form and execute complex cooperative plans, to understand one another, to appreciate and negotiate around our differences. (2014: 1)

Without clear and precise communication of the sort that only speech can provide, we cannot cooperate to discharge our collective obligations. Nor can we exercise our normative powers (such as consenting, waiving, or promising). Our moral agency thus depends upon protected channels through which we can relay our sincere thoughts to one another. The central role of free speech is to protect those channels, by ensuring agents are free to share what they are thinking without fear of sanction.

The thinker-based view has wide-ranging normative implications. For example, by emphasizing the continuity of speech and thought (a connection also noted in Macklem 2006 and Gilmore 2011), Shiffrin’s view powerfully explains the First Amendment doctrine that compelled speech also constitutes a violation of freedom of expression. Traditional listener- and speaker-focused theories seemingly cannot explain what is fundamentally objectionable with forcing someone to declare a commitment to something, as with children compelled to pledge allegiance to the American flag ( West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette 1943). “What seems most troubling about the compelled pledge”, Shiffrin writes,

is that the motive behind the regulation, and its possible effect, is to interfere with the autonomous thought processes of the compelled speaker. (2014: 94)

Further, Shiffrin’s view explains why a concern for free speech does not merely correlate to negative duties not to interfere with expression; it also supports positive responsibilities on the part of the state to educate citizens, encouraging and supporting their development and exercise as thinking beings (2014: 107).

Consider briefly one final family of free speech theories, which appeal to the role of toleration or self-restraint. On one argument, freedom of speech is important because it develops our character as liberal citizens, helping us tame our illiberal impulses. The underlying idea of Lee Bollinger’s view is that liberalism is difficult; we recurrently face temptation to punish those who hold contrary views. Freedom of speech helps us to practice the general ethos of toleration in a manner than fortifies our liberal convictions (1986). Deeply offensive speech, like pro-Nazi speech, is protected precisely because toleration in these enormously difficult cases promotes “a general social ethic” of toleration more generally (1986: 248), thereby restraining unjust exercises of state power overall. This consequentialist argument treats the protection of offensive speech not as a tricky borderline case, but as “integral to the central functions of the principle of free speech” (1986: 133). It is precisely because tolerating evil speech involves “extraordinary self-restraint” (1986: 10) that it works its salutary effects on society generally.

The idea of self-restraint arises, too, in Matthew Kramer’s recent defense of free speech. Like listener theories, Kramer’s strongly deontological theory condemns censorship aimed at protecting audiences from exposure to misguided views. At the core of his theory is the thesis that the state’s paramount moral responsibility is to furnish the social conditions that serve the development and maintenance of citizens’ self-respect and respect for others. The achievement of such an ethically resilient citizenry, on Kramer’s view, has the effect of neutering the harmfulness of countless harmful communications. “Securely in a position of ethical strength”, the state “can treat the wares of pornographers and the maunderings of bigots as execrable chirps that are to be endured with contempt” (Kramer 2021: 147). In contrast, in a society where the state has failed to do its duty of inculcating a robust liberal-egalitarian ethos, the communication of illiberal creeds may well pose a substantial threat. Yet for the state then to react by banning such speech is

overweening because with them the system’s officials take control of communications that should have been defused (through the system’s fulfillment of its moral obligations) without prohibitory or preventative impositions. (2021: 147)

(One might agree with Kramer that this is so, but diverge by arguing that the state—having failed in its initial duty—ought to take measures to prevent the harms that flow from that failure.)

These theories are striking in that they assume that a chief task of free speech theory is to explain why harmful speech ought to be protected. This is in contrast to those who think that the chief task of free speech theory is to explain our interests in communicating with others, treating the further issue of whether (wrongfully) harmful communications should be protected as an open question, with different reasonable answers available (Kendrick 2017). In this way, toleration theories—alongside a lot of philosophical work on free speech—seem designed to vindicate the demanding American legal position on free speech, one unshared by virtually all other liberal democracies.

One final family of arguments for free speech appeals to the danger of granting the state powers it may abuse. On this view, we protect free speech chiefly because if we didn’t, it would be far easier for the state to silence its political opponents and enact unjust policies. On this view, a state with censorial powers is likely to abuse them. As Richard Epstein notes, focusing on the American case,

the entire structure of federalism, divided government, and the system of checks and balances at the federal level shows that the theme of distrust has worked itself into the warp and woof of our constitutional structure.

“The protection of speech”, he writes, “…should be read in light of these political concerns” (Epstein 1992: 49).

This view is not merely a restatement of the democracy theory; it does not affirm free speech as an element of valuable self-governance. Nor does it reduce to the uncontroversial thought that citizens need freedom of speech to check the behavior of fallible government agents (Blasi 1977). One need not imagine human beings to be particularly sinister to insist (as democracy theorists do) that the decisions of those entrusted with great power be subject to public discussion and scrutiny. The argument under consideration here is more pessimistic about human nature. It is an argument about the slippery slope that we create even when enacting (otherwise justified) speech restrictions; we set an unacceptable precedent for future conduct by the state (see Schauer 1985). While this argument is theoretical, there is clearly historical evidence for it, as in the manifold cases in which bans on dangerous sedition were used to suppress legitimate war protest. (For a sweeping canonical study of the uses and abuses of speech regulations during wartime, with a focus on U.S. history, see G. Stone 2004.)

These instrumental concerns could potentially justify the legal protection for free speech. But they do not to attempt to justify why we should care about free speech as a positive moral ideal (Shiffrin 2014: 83n); they are, in Cohen’s helpful terminology, “minimalist” rather than “maximalist” (Cohen 1993: 210). Accordingly, they cannot explain why free speech is something that even the most trustworthy, morally competent administrations, with little risk of corruption or degeneration, ought to respect. Of course, minimalists will deny that accounting for speech’s positive value is a requirement of a theory of free speech, and that critiquing them for this omission begs the question.

Pluralists may see instrumental concerns as valuably supplementing or qualifying noninstrumental views. For example, instrumental concerns may play a role in justifying deviations between the moral right to free communication, on the one hand, and a properly specified legal right to free communication, on the other. Suppose that there is no moral right to engage in certain forms of harmful expression (such as hate speech), and that there is in fact a moral duty to refrain from such expression. Even so, it does not follow automatically that such a right ought to be legally enforced. Concerns about the dangers of granting the state such power plausibly militate against the enforcement of at least some of our communicative duties—at least in those jurisdictions that lack robust and competently administered liberal-democratic safeguards.

This entry has canvassed a range of views about what justifies freedom of expression, with particular attention to theories that conceive free speech as a natural moral right. Clearly, the proponents of such views believe that they succeed in this justificatory effort. But others dissent, doubting that the case for a bona fide moral right to free speech comes through. Let us briefly note the nature of this challenge from free speech skeptics , exploring a prominent line of reply.

The challenge from skeptics is generally understood as that of showing that free speech is a special right . As Leslie Kendrick notes,

the term “special right” generally requires that a special right be entirely distinct from other rights and activities and that it receive a very high degree of protection. (2017: 90)

(Note that this usage is not to be confused from the alternative usage of “special right”, referring to conditional rights arising out of particular relationships; see Hart 1955.)

Take each aspect in turn. First, to vindicate free speech as a special right, it must serve some distinctive value or interest (Schauer 2015). Suppose free speech were just an implication of a general principle not to interfere in people’s liberty without justification. As Joel Feinberg puts it, “Liberty should be the norm; coercion always needs some special justification” (1984: 9). In such a case, then while there still might be contingent, historical reasons to single speech out in law as worthy of protection (Alexander 2005: 186), such reasons would not track anything especially distinctive about speech as an underlying moral matter. Second, to count as a special right, free speech must be robust in what it protects, such that only a compelling justification can override it (Dworkin 2013: 131). This captures the conviction, prominent among American constitutional theorists, that “any robust free speech principle must protect at least some harmful speech despite the harm it may cause” (Schauer 2011b: 81; see also Schauer 1982).

If the task of justifying a moral right to free speech requires surmounting both hurdles, it is a tall order. Skeptics about a special right to free speech doubt that the order can be met, and so deny that a natural moral right to freedom of expression can be justified (Schauer 2015; Alexander & Horton 1983; Alexander 2005; Husak 1985). But these theorists may be demanding too much (Kendrick 2017). Start with the claim that free speech must be distinctive. We can accept that free speech be more than simply one implication of a general presumption of liberty. But need it be wholly distinctive? Consider the thesis that free speech is justified by our autonomy interests—interests that justify other rights such as freedom of religion and association. Is it a problem if free speech is justified by interests that are continuous with, or overlap with, interests that justify other rights? Pace the free speech skeptics, maybe not. So long as such claims deserve special recognition, and are worth distinguishing by name, this may be enough (Kendrick 2017: 101). Many of the views canvassed above share normative bases with other important rights. For example, Rawls is clear that he thinks all the basic liberties constitute

essential social conditions for the adequate development and full exercise of the two powers of moral personality over a complete life. (Rawls 2005: 293)

The debate, then, is whether such a shared basis is a theoretical virtue (or at least theoretically unproblematic) or whether it is a theoretical vice, as the skeptics avow.

As for the claim that free speech must be robust, protecting harmful speech, “it is not necessary for a free speech right to protect harmful speech in order for it to be called a free speech right” (Kendrick 2017: 102). We do not tend to think that religious liberty must protect harmful religious activities for it to count as a special right. So it would be strange to insist that the right to free speech must meet this burden to count as a special right. Most of the theorists mentioned above take themselves to be offering views that protect quite a lot of harmful speech. Yet we can question whether this feature is a necessary component of their views, or whether we could imagine variations without this result.

3. Justifying Speech Restrictions

When, and why, can restrictions on speech be justified? It is common in public debate on free speech to hear the provocative claim that free speech is absolute . But the plausibility of such a claim depends on what is exactly meant by it. If understood to mean that no communications between humans can ever be restricted, such a view is held by no one in the philosophical debate. When I threaten to kill you unless you hand me your money; when I offer to bribe the security guard to let me access the bank vault; when I disclose insider information that the company in which you’re heavily invested is about to go bust; when I defame you by falsely posting online that you’re a child abuser; when I endanger you by labeling a drug as safe despite its potentially fatal side-effects; when I reveal your whereabouts to assist a murderer intent on killing you—across all these cases, communications may be uncontroversially restricted. But there are different views as to why.

To help organize such views, consider a set of distinctions influentially defended by Schauer (from 1982 onward). The first category involves uncovered speech : speech that does not even presumptively fall within the scope of a principle of free expression. Many of the speech-acts just canvassed, such as the speech involved in making a threat or insider training, plausibly count as uncovered speech. As the U.S. Supreme Court has said of fighting words (e.g., insults calculated to provoke a street fight),

such utterances 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. ( Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire 1942)

The general idea here is that some speech simply has negligible—and often no —value as free speech, in light of its utter disconnection from the values that justify free speech in the first place. (For discussion of so-called “low-value speech” in the U.S. context, see Sunstein 1989 and Lakier 2015.) Accordingly, when such low-value speech is harmful, it is particularly easy to justify its curtailment. Hence the Court’s view that “the prevention and punishment of [this speech] have never been thought to raise any Constitutional problem”. For legislation restricting such speech, the U.S. Supreme Court applies a “rational basis” test, which is very easy to meet, as it simply asks whether the law is rationally related to a legitimate state interest. (Note that it is widely held that it would still be impermissible to selectively ban low-value speech on a viewpoint-discriminatory basis—e.g., if a state only banned fighting words from left-wing activists while allowing them from right-wing activists.)

Schauer’s next category concerns speech that is covered but unprotected . This is speech that engages the values that underpin free speech; yet the countervailing harm of the speech justifies its restriction. In such cases, while there is real value in such expression as free speech, that value is outweighed by competing normative concerns (or even, as we will see below, on behalf of the very values that underpin free speech). In U.S. constitutional jurisprudence, this category encompasses those extremely rare cases in which restrictions on political speech pass the “strict scrutiny” test, whereby narrow restrictions on high-value speech can be justified due to the compelling state interests thereby served. Consider Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project 2010, in which the Court held that an NGO’s legal advice to a terrorist organization on how to pursue peaceful legal channels were legitimately criminalized under a counter-terrorism statute. While such speech had value as free speech (at least on one interpretation of this contested ruling), the imperative of counter-terrorism justified its restriction. (Arguably, commercial speech, while sometimes called low-value speech by scholars, falls into the covered but unprotected category. Under U.S. law, legislation restricting it receives “intermediate scrutiny” by courts—requiring restrictions to be narrowly drawn to advance a substantial government interest. Such a test suggests that commercial speech has bona fide free-speech value, making it harder to justify regulations on it than regulations on genuinely low-value speech like fighting words. It simply doesn’t have as much free-speech value as categories like political speech, religious speech, or press speech, all of which trigger the strict scrutiny test when restricted.)

As a philosophical matter, we can reasonably disagree about what speech qualifies as covered but unprotected (and need not treat the verdicts of the U.S. Supreme Court as philosophically decisive). For example, consider politically-inflected hate speech, which advances repugnant ideas about the inferior status of certain groups. One could concur that there is substantial free-speech value in such expression, just because it involves the sincere expression of views about central questions of politics and justice (however misguided the views doubtlessly are). Yet one could nevertheless hold that such speech should not be protected in virtue of the substantial harms to which it can lead. In such cases, the free-speech value is outweighed. Many scholars who defend the permissibility of legal restrictions on hate speech hold such a view (e.g., Parekh 2012; Waldron 2012). (More radically, one could hold that such speech’s value is corrupted by its evil, such that it qualifies as genuinely low-value; Howard 2019a.)

The final category of speech encompasses expression that is covered and protected . To declare that speech is protected just is to conclude that it is immune from restriction. A preponderance of human communications fall into this category. This does not mean that such speech can never be regulated ; content-neutral time, place, and manner regulations (e.g., prohibiting loud nighttime protests) can certainly be justified (G. Stone 1987). But such regulations must not be viewpoint discriminatory; they must apply even-handedly across all forms of protected speech.

Schauer’s taxonomy offers a useful organizing framework for how we should think about different forms of speech. Where does it leave the claim that free speech is absolute? The possibility of speech that is covered but unprotected suggests that free speech should sometimes be restricted on account of rival normative concerns. Of course, one could contend that such a category, while logically possible, is substantively an empty set; such a position would involve some kind of absoluteness about free speech (holding that where free-speech values are engaged by expression, no countervailing values can ever be weighty enough to override them). Such a position would be absolutist in a certain sense while granting the permissibility of restrictions on speech that do not engage the free-speech values. (For a recent critique of Schauer’s framework, arguing that governmental designation of some speech as low-value is incompatible with the very ideal of free speech, see Kramer 2021: 31.)

In what follows, this entry will focus on Schauer’s second category: speech that is covered by a free speech principle, but is nevertheless unprotected because of the harms it causes. How do we determine what speech falls into this category? How, in other words, do we determine the limits of free speech? Unsurprisingly, this is where most of the controversy lies.

Most legal systems that protect free speech recognize that the right has limits. Consider, for example, international human rights law, which emphatically protects the freedom of speech as a fundamental human right while also affirming specific restrictions on certain seriously harmful speech. Article 19 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights declares that “[e]veryone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds”—but then immediately notes that this right “carries with it special duties and responsibilities”. The subsequent ICCPR article proceeds to endorse legal restrictions on “advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”, as well as speech constituting “propaganda for war” (ICCPR). While such restrictions would plainly be struck down as unconstitutional affronts to free speech in the U.S., this more restrictive approach prevails in most liberal democracies’ treatment of harmful speech.

Set aside the legal issue for now. How should we think about how to determine the limits of the moral right free speech? Those seeking to justify limits on speech tend to appeal to one of two strategies (Howard and Simpson forthcoming). The first strategy appeals to the importance of balancing free speech against other moral values when they come into conflict. This strategy involves external limits on free speech. (The next strategy, discussed below, invokes free speech itself, or the values that justify it, as limit-setting rationales; it thus involves internal limits on free speech.)

A balancing approach recognizes a moral conflict between unfettered communication and external values. Consider again the case of hate speech, understood as expression that attacks members of socially vulnerable groups as inferior or dangerous. On all of the theories canvassed above, there are grounds for thinking that restrictions on hate speech are prima facie in violation of the moral right to free speech. Banning hate speech to prevent people from hearing ideas that might incline them to bigotry plainly seems to disrespect listener autonomy. Further, even when speakers are expressing prejudiced views, they are still engaging their autonomous faculties. Certainly, they are expressing views on questions of public political concern, even false ones. And as thinkers they are engaged in the communication of sincere testimony to others. On many of the leading theories, the values underpinning free speech seem to be militate against bans on hate speech.

Even so, other values matter. Consider, for example, the value of upholding the equal dignity of all citizens. A central insight of critical race theory is that public expressions of white supremacy, for example, attack and undermine that equal dignity (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw 1993). On Jeremy Waldron’s view (2012), hate speech is best understood as a form of group defamation, launching spurious attacks on others’ reputations and thereby undermining their standing as respected equals in their own community (relatedly, see Beauharnais v. Illinois 1952).

Countries that ban hate speech, accordingly, are plausibly understood not as opposed to free speech, but as recognizing the importance that it be balanced when conflicting with other values. Such balancing can be understood in different ways. In European human rights law, for example, the relevant idea is that the right to free speech is balanced against other rights ; the relevant task, accordingly, is to specify what counts as a proportionate balance between these rights (see Alexy 2003; J. Greene 2021).

For others, the very idea of balancing rights undermines their deontic character. This alternative framing holds that the balancing occurs before we specify what rights are; on this view, we balance interests against each other, and only once we’ve undertaken that balancing do we proceed to define what our rights protect. As Scanlon puts it,

The only balancing is balancing of interests. Rights are not balanced, but are defined, or redefined, in the light of the balance of interests and of empirical facts about how these interests can best be protected. (2008: 78)

This balancing need not come in the form of some crude consequentialism; otherwise it would be acceptable to limit the rights of the few to secure trivial benefits for the many. On a contractualist moral theory such as Scanlon’s, the test is to assess the strength of any given individual’s reason to engage in (or access) the speech, against the strength of any given individual’s reason to oppose it.

Note that those who engage in balancing need not give up on the idea of viewpoint neutrality; they can accept that, as a general principle, the state should not restrict speech on the grounds that it disapproves of its message and dislikes that others will hear it. The point, instead, is that this commitment is defeasible; it is possible to be overridden.

One final comment is apt. Those who are keen to balance free speech against other values tend to be motivated by the concern that speech can cause harm, either directly or indirectly (on this distinction, see Schauer 1993). But to justify restrictions on speech, it is not sufficient (and perhaps not even necessary) to show that such speech imposes or risks imposing harm. The crucial point is that the speech is wrongful (or, perhaps, wrongfully harmful or risky) , breaching a moral duty that speakers owe to others. Yet very few in the free speech literature think that the mere offensiveness of speech is sufficient to justify restrictions on it. Even Joel Feinberg, who thinks offensiveness can sometimes be grounds for restricting conduct, makes a sweeping exception for

[e]xpressions of opinion, especially about matters of public policy, but also about matters of empirical fact, and about historical, scientific, theological, philosophical, political, and moral questions. (1985: 44)

And in many cases, offensive speech may be actively salutary, as when racists are offended by defenses of racial equality (Waldron 1987). Accordingly, despite how large it looms in public debate, discussion of offensive speech will not play a major role in the discussion here.

We saw that one way to justify limits on free speech is to balance it against other values. On that approach, free speech is externally constrained. A second approach, in contrast, is internally constrained. On this approach, the very values that justify free speech themselves determine its own limits. This is a revisionist approach to free speech since, unlike orthodox thinking, it contends that a commitment to free speech values can counterintuitively support the restriction of speech—a surprising inversion of traditional thinking on the topic (see Howard and Simpson forthcoming). This move—justifying restrictions on speech by appealing to the values that underpin free speech—is now prevalent in the philosophical literature (for an overview, see Barendt 2005: 1ff).

Consider, for example, the claim that free speech is justified by concerns of listener autonomy. On such a view, as we saw above, autonomous citizens have interests in exposure to a wide range of viewpoints, so that they can decide for themselves what to believe. But many have pointed out that this is not autonomous citizens’ only interest; they also have interests in not getting murdered by those incited by incendiary speakers (Amdur 1980). Likewise, insofar as being targeted by hate speech undermines the exercise of one’s autonomous capacities, appeal to the underlying value of autonomy could well support restrictions on such speech (Brison 1998; see also Brink 2001). What’s more, if our interests as listeners in acquiring accurate information is undermined by fraudulent information, then restrictions on such information could well be compatible with our status as autonomous; this was one of the insights that led Scanlon to complicate his theory of free speech (1978).

Or consider the theory that free speech is justified because of its role in enabling autonomous speakers to express themselves. But as Japa Pallikkathayil has argued, some speech can intimidate its audiences into staying silent (as with some hate speech), out of fear for what will happen if they speak up (Pallikkathayil 2020). In principle, then, restrictions on hate speech may serve to support the value of speaker expression, rather than undermine it (see also Langton 2018; Maitra 2009; Maitra & McGowan 2007; and Matsuda 1989: 2337). Indeed, among the most prominent claims in feminist critiques of pornography is precisely that it silences women—not merely through its (perlocutionary) effects in inspiring rape, but more insidiously through its (illocutionary) effects in altering the force of the word “no” (see MacKinnon 1984; Langton 1993; and West 204 [2022]; McGowan 2003 and 2019; cf. Kramer 2021, pp. 160ff).

Now consider democracy theories. On the one hand, democracy theorists are adamant that citizens should be free to discuss any proposals, even the destruction of democracy itself (e.g., Meiklejohn 1948: 65–66). On the other hand, it isn’t obvious why citizens’ duties as democratic citizens could not set a limit to their democratic speech rights (Howard 2019a). The Nazi propagandist Goebbels is said to have remarked:

This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed. (as quoted in Fox & Nolte 1995: 1)

But it is not clear why this is necessarily so. Why should we insist on a conception of democracy that contains a self-destruct mechanism? Merely stipulating that democracy requires this is not enough (see A. Greene and Simpson 2017).

Finally, consider Shiffrin’s thinker-based theory. Shiffrin’s view is especially well-placed to explain why varieties of harmful communications are protected speech; what the theory values is the sincere transmission of veridical testimony, whereby speakers disclose what they genuinely believe to others, even if what they believe is wrongheaded and dangerous. Yet because the sincere testimony of thinkers is what qualifies some communication for protection, Shiffrin is adamant that lying falls outside the protective ambit of freedom of expression (2014) This, then, sets an internal limit on her own theory (even if she herself disfavors all lies’ outright prohibition for reasons of tolerance). The claim that lying falls outside the protective ambit of free speech is itself a recurrent suggestion in the literature (Strauss 1991: 355; Brown 2023). In an era of rampant disinformation, this internal limit is of substantial practical significance.

Suppose the moral right (or principle) of free speech is limited, as most think, such that not all communications fall within its protective ambit (either for external reasons, internal reasons, or both). Even so, it does not follow that laws banning such unprotected speech can be justified all-things-considered. Further moral tests must be passed before any particular policy restricting speech can be justified. This sub-section focuses on the requirement that speech restrictions be proportionate .

The idea that laws implicating fundamental rights must be proportionate is central in many jurisdictions’ constitutional law, as well as in the international law of human rights. As a representative example, consider the specification of proportionality offered by the Supreme Court of Canada:

First, the measures adopted must be carefully designed to achieve the objective in question. They must not be arbitrary, unfair, or based on irrational considerations. In short, they must be rationally connected to the objective. Second, the means, even if rationally connected to the objective in this first sense, should impair “as little as possible” the right or freedom in question[…] Third, there must be a proportionality between the effects of the measures which are responsible for limiting the Charter right or freedom, and the objective which has been identified as of “sufficient importance” ( R v. Oakes 1986).

It is this third element (often called “proportionality stricto sensu ”) on which we will concentrate here; this is the focused sense of proportionality that roughly tracks how the term is used in the philosophical literatures on defensive harm and war, as well as (with some relevant differences) criminal punishment. (The strict scrutiny and intermediate scrutiny tests of U.S. constitutional law are arguably variations of the proportionality test; but set aside this complication for now as it distracts from the core philosophical issues. For relevant legal discussion, see Tsesis 2020.)

Proportionality, in the strict sense, concerns the relation between the costs or harms imposed by some measure and the benefits that the measure is designed to secure. The organizing distinction in recent philosophical literature (albeit largely missing in the literature on free speech) is one between narrow proportionality and wide proportionality . While there are different ways to cut up the terrain between these terms, let us stipulatively define them as follows. An interference is narrowly proportionate just in case the intended target of the interference is liable to bear the costs of that interference. An interference is widely proportionate just in case the collateral costs that the interference unintentionally imposes on others can be justified. (This distinction largely follows the literature in just war theory and the ethics of defensive force; see McMahan 2009.) While the distinction is historically absent from free speech theory, it has powerful payoffs in helping to structure this chaotic debate (as argued in Howard 2019a).

So start with the idea that restrictions on communication must be narrowly proportionate . For a restriction to be narrowly proportionate, those whose communications are restricted must be liable to bear their costs, such that they are not wronged by their imposition. One standard way to be liable to bear certain costs is to have a moral duty to bear them (Tadros 2012). So, for example, if speakers have a moral duty to refrain from libel, hate speech, or some other form of harmful speech, they are liable to bear at least some costs involved in the enforcement of that duty. Those costs cannot be unlimited; a policy of executing hate speakers could not plausibly be justified. Typically, in both defensive and punitive contexts, wrongdoers’ liability is determined by their culpability, the severity of their wrong, or some combination of the two. While it is difficult to say in the abstract what the precise maximal cost ceiling is for any given restriction, as it depends hugely on the details, the point is simply that there is some ceiling above which a speech restriction (like any restriction) imposes unacceptably high costs, even on wrongdoers.

Second, for a speech restriction to be justified, we must also show that it would be widely proportionate . Suppose a speaker is liable to bear the costs of some policy restricting her communication, such that she is not wronged by its imposition. It may be that the collateral costs of such a policy would render it unacceptable. One set of costs is chilling effects , the “overdeterrence of benign conduct that occurs incidentally to a law’s legitimate purpose or scope” (Kendrick 2013: 1649). The core idea is that laws targeting unprotected, legitimately proscribed expression may nevertheless end up having a deleterious impact on protected expression. This is because laws are often vague, overbroad, and in any case are likely to be misapplied by fallible officials (Schauer 1978: 699).

Note that if a speech restriction produces chilling effects, it does not follow that the restriction should not exist at all. Rather, concern about chilling effects instead suggests that speech restrictions should be under-inclusive—restricting less speech than is actually harmful—in order to create “breathing space”, or “a buffer zone of strategic protection” (Schauer 1978: 710) for legitimate expression and so reduce unwanted self-censorship. For example, some have argued that even though speech can cause harm recklessly or negligently, we should insist on specific intent as the mens rea of speech crimes in order to reduce any chilling effects that could follow (Alexander 1995: 21–128; Schauer 1978: 707; cf. Kendrick 2013).

But chilling effects are not the only sort of collateral effects to which speech restrictions could lead. Earlier we noted the risk that states might abuse their censorial powers. This, too, could militate in favor of underinclusive speech restrictions. Or the implication could be more radical. Consider the problem that it is difficult to author restrictions on hate speech in a tightly specified way; the language involved is open-ended in a manner that enables states to exercise considerable judgment in deciding what speech-acts, in fact, count as violations (see Strossen 2018). Given the danger that the state will misuse or abuse these laws to punish legitimate speech, some might think this renders their enactment widely disproportionate. Indeed, even if the law were well-crafted and would be judiciously applied by current officials, the point is that those in the future may not be so trustworthy.

Those inclined to accept such a position might simply draw the conclusion that legislatures ought to refrain from enacting laws against hate speech. A more radical conclusion is that the legal right to free speech ought to be specified so that hate speech is constitutionally protected. In other words, we ought to give speakers a legal right to violate their moral duties, since enforcing those moral duties through law is simply too risky. By appealing to this logic, it is conceivable that the First Amendment position on hate speech could be justified all-things-considered—not because the underlying moral right to free speech protects hate speech, but because hate speech must be protected for instrumental reasons of preventing future abuses of power (Howard 2019a).

Suppose certain restrictions on harmful speech can be justified as proportionate, in both the narrow and wide senses. This is still not sufficient to justify them all-things-considered. Additionally, they must be justified as necessary . (Note that some conceptions of proportionality in human rights law encompass the necessity requirement, but this entry follows the prevailing philosophical convention by treating them as distinct.)

Why might restrictions on harmful speech be unnecessary? One of the standard claims in the free speech literature is that we should respond to harmful speech not by banning it, but by arguing back against it. Counter-speech—not censorship—is the appropriate solution. This line of reasoning is old. As John Milton put it in 1644: “Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” The insistence on counter-speech as the remedy for harmful speech is similarly found, as noted above, throughout chapter 2 of Mill’s On Liberty .

For many scholars, this line of reply is justified by the fact that they think the harmful speech in question is protected by the moral right to free speech. For such scholars, counter-speech is the right response because censorship is morally off the table. For other scholars, the recourse to counter-speech has a plausible distinct rationale (although it is seldom articulated): its possibility renders legal restrictions unnecessary. And because it is objectionable to use gratuitous coercion, legal restrictions are therefore impermissible (Howard 2019a). Such a view could plausibly justify Mill’s aforementioned analysis in the corn dealer example, whereby censorship is permissible but only when there’s no time for counter-speech—a view that is also endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio 395 U.S. 444 (1969).

Whether this argument succeeds depends upon a wide range of further assumptions—about the comparable effectiveness of counter-speech relative to law; about the burdens that counter-speech imposes on prospective counter-speakers. Supposing that the argument succeeds, it invites a range of further normative questions about the ethics of counter-speech. For example, it is important who has the duty to engage in counter-speech, who its intended audience is, and what specific forms the counter-speech ought to take—especially in order to maximize its persuasive effectiveness (Brettschneider 2012; Cepollaro, Lepoutre, & Simpson 2023; Howard 2021b; Lepoutre 2021; Badano & Nuti 2017). It is also important to ask questions about the moral limits of counter-speech. For example, insofar as publicly shaming wrongful speakers has become a prominent form of counter-speech, it is crucial to interrogate its permissibility (e.g., Billingham and Parr 2020).

This final section canvasses the young philosophical debate concerning freedom of speech on the internet. With some important exceptions (e.g., Barendt 2005: 451ff), this issue has only recently accelerated (for an excellent edited collection, see Brison & Gelber 2019). There are many normative questions to be asked about the moral rights and obligations of internet platforms. Here are three. First, do internet platforms have moral duties to respect the free speech of their users? Second, do internet platforms have moral duties to restrict (or at least refrain from amplifying) harmful speech posted by their users? And finally, if platforms do indeed have moral duties to restrict harmful speech, should those duties be legally enforced?

The reference to internet platforms , is a deliberate focus on large-scale social media platforms, through which people can discover and publicly share user-generated content. We set aside other entities such as search engines (Whitney & Simpson 2019), important though they are. That is simply because the central political controversies, on which philosophical input is most urgent, concern the large social-media platforms.

Consider the question of whether internet platforms have moral duties to respect the free speech of their users. One dominant view in the public discourse holds that the answer is no . On this view, platforms are private entities, and as such enjoy the prerogative to host whatever speech they like. This would arguably be a function of them having free speech rights themselves. Just as the free speech rights of the New York Times give it the authority to publish whatever op-eds it sees fit, the free speech rights of platforms give them the authority to exercise editorial or curatorial judgment about what speech to allow. On this view, if Facebook were to decide to become a Buddhist forum, amplifying the speech of Buddhist users and promoting Buddhist perspectives and ideas, and banning speech promoting other religions, it would be entirely within its moral (and thus proper legal) rights to do so. So, too, if it were to decide to become an atheist forum.

A radical alternative view holds that internet platforms constitute a public forum , a term of art from U.S. free speech jurisprudence used to designate spaces “designed for and dedicated to expressive activities” ( Southeastern Promotions Ltd., v. Conrad 1975). As Kramer has argued:

social-media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and YouTube have become public fora. Although the companies that create and run those platforms are not morally obligated to sustain them in existence at all, the role of controlling a public forum morally obligates each such company to comply with the principle of freedom of expression while performing that role. No constraints that deviate from the kinds of neutrality required under that principle are morally legitimate. (Kramer 2021: 58–59)

On this demanding view, platforms’ duties to respect speech are (roughly) identical to the duties of states. Accordingly, if efforts by the state to restrict hate speech, pornography, and public health misinformation (for example) are objectionable affronts to free speech, so too are platforms’ content moderation rules for such content. A more moderate view does not hold that platforms are public forums as such, but holds that government channels or pages qualify as public forums (the claim at issue in Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump (2019).)

Even if we deny that platforms constitute public forums, it is plausible that they engage in a governance function of some kind (Klonick 2018). As Jack Balkin has argued, the traditional model of free speech, which sees it as a relation between speakers and the state, is today plausibly supplanted by a triadic model, involving a more complex relation between speakers, governments, and intermediaries (2004, 2009, 2018, 2021). If platforms do indeed have some kind of governance function, it may well trigger responsibilities for transparency and accountability (as with new legislation such as the EU’s Digital Services Act and the UK’s Online Safety Act).

Second, consider the question of whether platforms have a duty to remove harmful content posted by users. Even those who regard them as public forums could agree that platforms may have a moral responsibility to remove illegal unprotected speech. Yet a dominant view in the public debate has historically defended platforms’ place as mere conduits for others’ speech. This is the current position under U.S. law (as with 47 U.S. Code §230), which broadly exempts platforms from liability for much illegal speech, such as defamation. On this view, we should view platforms as akin to bulletin boards: blame whoever posts wrongful content, but don’t hold the owner of the board responsible.

This view is under strain. Even under current U.S. law, platforms are liable for removing some content, such as child sexual abuse material and copyright infringements, suggesting that it is appropriate to demand some accountability for the wrongful content posted by others. An increasing body of philosophical work explores the idea that platforms are indeed morally responsible for removing extreme content. For example, some have argued that platforms have a special responsibility to prevent the radicalization that occurs on their networks, given the ways in which extreme content is amplified to susceptible users (Barnes 2022). Without engaging in moderation (i.e., removal) of harmful content, platforms are plausibly complicit with the wrongful harms perpetrated by users (Howard forthcoming).

Yet it remains an open question what a responsible content moderation policy ought to involve. Many are tempted by a juridical model, whereby platforms remove speech in accordance with clearly announced rules, with user appeals mechanisms in place for individual speech decisions to ensure they are correctly made (critiqued in Douek 2022b). Yet platforms have billions of users and remove millions of pieces of content per week. Accordingly, perfection is not possible. Moving quickly to remove harmful content during a crisis—e.g., Covid misinformation—will inevitably increase the number of false positives (i.e., legitimate speech taken down as collateral damage). It is plausible that the individualistic model of speech decisions adopted by courts is decidedly implausible to help us govern online content moderation; as noted in Douek 2021 and 2022a, what is needed is analysis of how the overall system should operate at scale, with a focus on achieving proportionality between benefits and costs. Alternatively, one might double down and insist that the juridical model is appropriate, given the normative significance of speech. And if it is infeasible for social-media companies to meet its demands given their size, then all the worse for social-media companies. On this view, it is they who must bend to meet the moral demands of free speech theory, not the other way around.

Substantial philosophical work needs to be done to deliver on this goal. The work is complicated by the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) is central to the processes of content moderation; human moderators, themselves subjected to terrible working conditions at long hours, work in conjunction with machine learning tools to identify and remove content that platforms have restricted. Yet AI systems notoriously are as biased as their training data. Further, their “black box” decisions are cryptic and cannot be easily understood. Given that countless speech decisions will necessarily be made without human involvement, it is right to ask whether it is reasonable to expect users to accept the deliverances of machines (e.g., see Vredenburgh 2022; Lazar forthcoming a). Note that machine intelligence is used not merely for content moderation, narrowly understood as the enforcement of rules about what speech is allowed. It is also deployed for the broader practice of content curation, determining what speech gets amplified — raising the question of what normative principles should govern such amplification; see Lazar forthcoming b).

Finally, there is the question of legal enforcement. Showing that platforms have the moral responsibility to engage in content moderation is necessary to justifying its codification into a legal responsibility. Yet it is not sufficient; one could accept that platforms have moral duties to moderate (some) harmful speech while also denying that those moral duties ought to be legally enforced. A strong, noninstrumental version of such a view would hold that while speakers have moral duties to refrain from wrongful speech, and platforms have duties not to platform or amplify it, the coercive enforcement of such duties would violate the moral right to freedom of expression. A more contingent, instrumental version of the view would hold that legal enforcement is not in principle impermissible; but in practice, it is simply too risky to grant the state the authority to enforce platforms’ and speakers’ moral duties, given the potential for abuse and overreach.

Liberals who champion the orthodox interpretation of the First Amendment, yet insist on robust content moderation, likely hold one or both of these views. Yet globally such views seem to be in the minority. Serious legislation is imminent that will subject social-media companies to burdensome regulation, in the form of such laws as the Digital Services Act in the European Union and the Online Safety Bill in the UK. Normatively evaluating such legislation is a pressing task. So, too, is the task of designing normative theories to guide the design of content moderation systems, and the wider governance of the digital public sphere. On both fronts, political philosophers should get back to work.

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  • Free Speech Debate
  • Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University
  • van Mill, David, “Freedom of Speech”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.), URL = < https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2023/entries/freedom-speech/ >. [This was the previous entry on this topic in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – see the version history .]

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I am grateful to the editors and anonymous referees of this Encyclopedia for helpful feedback. I am greatly indebted to Robert Mark Simpson for many incisive suggestions, which substantially improved the entry. This entry was written while on a fellowship funded by UK Research & Innovation (grant reference MR/V025600/1); I am thankful to UKRI for the support.

Copyright © 2024 by Jeffrey W. Howard < jeffrey . howard @ ucl . ac . uk >

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First amendment rights: freedom of speech and the press.

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Freedom of speech and the press, resource toolkit for american spaces.

This Resource Toolkit is designed for programming at American Spaces to create a greater awareness of the rights outlined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, specifically freedom of speech and of the press.

a paragraph on freedom of speech


Free speech and press have a long  history in America. These protections give an independent press and individuals the right to express themselves without government interference, this includes the right to hold unpopular opinions.


  • The Dilemma of Free Speech * – This PBS lesson Plan has videos and handouts

From Newseum * with videos, handouts, and lesson plans (requires free account)

  • Introduction to the First Amendment
  • Free Speech Essentials
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What is Freedom of Speech ?

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

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 …

Freedom of speech, also interpreted to include expression beyond speech, is the right for people to express, promote, and defend their ideas through written, artistic, oral, and sign-based communication. Since America’s founding, freedom of speech allows individuals to speak out against injustices, criticize government policy, and share their opinions. A free press provides formal channels for amplifying different opinions, criticisms, and perspectives. Both freedoms are invaluable cornerstones of a free society. See this short video for a quick summary.


Lesson plans on press freedom*.

  • Free Press Challenges through History
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  • Why offensive speech is protected
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  • Limits of Free Speech
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  • NewseumEd has some excellent interactive online materials, including videos and self-paced courses on freedom of speech and press. You’ll need to create a free account to access their materials.

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The Importance of Free Press

Knowledge is power. In print, online, or on TV or radio:  without a free exchange of information, people can’t be fully aware of what’s going on around them and so can’t meaningfully participate in their communities or democracies. When freedom of expression is respected and recognized the media are able to freely report on politics, economics, and societal events as they occur. The free press is the foundation of any true democracy. A strong democracy encourages a free press — one that keeps the public informed, enables a diversity of voices, and holds leaders accountable.

Program Ideas

  • Invite independent journalists and activists to discuss their work and issues related to press freedom and freedom of expression in your country.
  • The United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM) , which includes Voice of America, provides unbiased reporting in countries and languages across the world. This page explains how your American Space can use USAGM resources, including how to get a USAGM expert to present virtually.
  • Start journalism clubs – This could include photojournalism, multimedia, and podcasting. Consider having a U.S. exchange alumni journalist lead or present at these clubs.

The views expressed in these links and resources do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. government.

Updated March 2023

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By scottbj | 24 April, 2023 | Topics: Adult , Age Group , Audience , Civil Society , College and University , Countering Mis and Disinformation , Democracy & Governance , Emerging Voices , Established Opinion Leaders , High School , Information about the United States , Pillars of American Spaces , Press & Media , Programming Type , Rule of Law , Social , Strategy , Toolkits , U.S. Culture , U.S. Policy and Values | Tags: month , programming , toolkit

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Freedom of speech is the right to speak, write, and share ideas and opinions without facing punishment from the government. The First Amendment protects this right by prohibiting Congress from making laws that would curtail freedom of speech.

Even though freedom of speech is protected from infringement by the government, the government is still free to restrict speech in certain circumstances. Some of these circumstances include:

  • Obscenity and Indecency – In Alliance for Community Media v. FCC , the Supreme Court found that obscenity and child pornography have no right to protection from the First Amendment, and as such, the government has the ability to ban this media altogether. But when it comes to indecency, which is generally defined by the courts as something describing or depicting offensive sexual activity, the Supreme Court has found this speech protected. But the government can regulate this speech on radio and television, so long as it’s for a compelling reason and is done in the least restrictive manner. 
  • Defamation – Private and public figures are able to sue someone for statements they have made. Public figures must prove that the person made the statement with malice , which means knowing the statement was false or having a reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statement. (See  New York Times v. Sullivan ) . Private figures must prove the person failed to act with reasonable care when they made the statement. 
  • Incitement – If a person has the intention of inciting the violations of laws that is imminent and likely, while directing this incitement at a person or groups of persons, their speech will not be protected under the First Amendment. This test was created by the Supreme Court in Brandenburg v. Ohio . 
  • Fighting words  

While the public has a right to freedom of speech when it comes to the U.S. government, the public does not have this right when it comes to private entities. Companies and private employers are able to regulate speech on their platforms and within their workplace since the First Amendment only applies to the government. This right allowed Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to ban President Donald Trump from their sites in 2021 without legal repercussion. Companies like Facebook and YouTube were also able to ban misleading information on Covid-19 during the 2020 pandemic.

The Supreme Court recently affirmed that private entities are not restricted by the First Amendment in the case Manhattan Community Access Corporation v. Halleck . Manhattan Neighborhood Network is a nonprofit that was given the authority by New York City to operate public access channels in Manhattan. The organization decided to suspend two of their employees after they received complaints about a film the employees produced. The employees argued that this was a violation of their First Amendment freedom of speech rights because they were being punished due to the content of their film. The Supreme Court held that Manhattan Neighborhood Network was not a government entity or a state actor , so the nonprofit couldn’t be subjected to the First Amendment.

In another case, Nyabwa v. Facebook , the Southern District of Texas also affirmed that private entities are not subject to the First Amendment. There, the plaintiff had a Facebook account, which spoke on President Donald Trump’s business conflicts of interest. Facebook decided to lock the account, so the plaintiff was no longer able to access it. The plaintiff decided to sue Facebook because he believed the company was violating his First Amendment rights. The court dismissed the lawsuit stating that the First Amendment prevents Congress and other government entities from restricting freedom of speech, not private entities. 

[Last updated in June of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team ] 

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In the UK, Article 10 of the 1998 Human Rights Act protects our right to freedom of expression:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

Are freedom of speech and freedom of expression the same thing? In the UK, freedom of speech is legally one part of the wider concept of freedom of expression.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Two Clashing Meanings of 'Free Speech'

Today’s campus controversies reflect a battle between two distinct conceptions of the term—what the Greeks called isegoria and parrhesia.

a paragraph on freedom of speech

Little distinguishes democracy in America more sharply from Europe than the primacy—and permissiveness—of our commitment to free speech. Yet ongoing controversies at American universities suggest that free speech is becoming a partisan issue. While conservative students defend the importance of inviting controversial speakers to campus and giving offense, many self-identified liberals are engaged in increasingly disruptive, even violent, efforts to shut them down. Free speech for some, they argue, serves only to silence and exclude others. Denying hateful or historically “privileged” voices a platform is thus necessary to make equality effective, so that the marginalized and vulnerable can finally speak up—and be heard.

The reason that appeals to the First Amendment cannot decide these campus controversies is because there is a more fundamental conflict between two, very different concepts of free speech at stake. The conflict between what the ancient Greeks called isegoria , on the one hand, and parrhesia , on the other, is as old as democracy itself. Today, both terms are often translated as “freedom of speech,” but their meanings were and are importantly distinct. In ancient Athens, isegoria described the equal right of citizens to participate in public debate in the democratic assembly; parrhesia , the license to say what one pleased, how and when one pleased, and to whom.

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When it comes to private universities, businesses, or social media, the would-be censors are our fellow-citizens, not the state. Private entities like Facebook or Twitter, not to mention Yale or Middlebury, have broad rights to regulate and exclude the speech of their members. Likewise, online mobs are made up of outraged individuals exercising their own right to speak freely. To invoke the First Amendment in such cases is not a knock-down argument, it’s a non sequitur .

John Stuart Mill argued that the chief threat to free speech in democracies was not the state, but the “social tyranny” of one’s fellow citizens. And yet today, the civil libertarians who style themselves as Mill’s inheritors have for the most part failed to refute, or even address, the arguments about free speech and equality that their opponents are making .

The two ancient concepts of free speech came to shape our modern liberal democratic notions in fascinating and forgotten ways. But more importantly, understanding that there is not one, but two concepts of freedom of speech, and that these are often in tension if not outright conflict, helps explain the frustrating shape of contemporary debates, both in the U.S. and in Europe—and why it so often feels as though we are talking past each other when it comes to the things that matter most.

Of the two ancient concepts of free speech, isegoria is the older. The term dates back to the fifth century BCE, although historians disagree as to when the democratic practice of permitting any citizen who wanted to address the assembly actually began. Despite the common translation “freedom of speech,” the Greek literally means something more like “equal speech in public.” The verb agoreuein , from which it derives, shares a root with the word agora or marketplace—that is, a public place where people, including philosophers like Socrates, would gather together and talk.

In the democracy of Athens, this idea of addressing an informal gathering in the agora carried over into the more formal setting of the ekklesia or political assembly. The herald would ask, “Who will address the assemblymen?” and then the volunteer would ascend the bema , or speaker’s platform. In theory, isegoria meant that any Athenian citizen in good standing had the right to participate in debate and try to persuade his fellow citizens. In practice, the number of participants was fairly small, limited to the practiced rhetoricians and elder statesmen seated near the front. (Disqualifying offenses included prostitution and taking bribes.)

Although Athens was not the only democracy in the ancient world, from the beginning the Athenian principle of isegoria was seen as something special. The historian Herodotus even described the form of government at Athens not as demokratia , but as isegoria itself . According to the fourth-century orator and patriot Demosthenes, the Athenian constitution was based on speeches ( politeia en logois ) and its citizens had chosen isegoria as a way of life. But for its critics, this was a bug, as well as a feature. One critic, the so-called ‘Old Oligarch,’ complained that even slaves and foreigners enjoyed isegoria at Athens, hence one could not beat them as one might elsewhere.

Critics like the Old Oligarch may have been exaggerating for comic effect, but they also had a point: as its etymology suggests, isegoria was fundamentally about equality, not freedom. As such, it would become the hallmark of Athenian democracy, which distinguished itself from the other Greek city-states not because it excluded slaves and women from citizenship (as did every society in the history of humankind until quite recently), but rather because it included the poor . Athens even took positive steps to render this equality of public speech effective by introducing pay for the poorest citizens to attend the assembly and to serve as jurors in the courts.

As a form of free speech then, isegoria was essentially political. Its competitor, parrhesia , was more expansive. Here again, the common English translation “freedom of speech” can be deceptive. The Greek means something like “all saying” and comes closer to the idea of speaking freely or “frankly.” Parrhesia thus implied openness, honesty, and the courage to tell the truth, even when it meant causing offense. The practitioner of parrhesia (or parrhesiastes ) was, quite literally, a “say-it-all.”

Parrhesia could have a political aspect. Demosthenes and other orators stressed the duty of those exercising isegoria in the assembly to speak their minds. But the concept applied more often outside of the ekklesia in more and less informal settings. In the theater, parrhesiastic playwrights like Aristophanes offended all and sundry by skewering their fellow citizens, including Socrates, by name. But the paradigmatic parrhesiastes in the ancient world were the Philosophers, self-styled “lovers of wisdom” like Socrates himself who would confront their fellow citizens in the agora and tell them whatever hard truths they least liked to hear. Among these was Diogenes the Cynic , who famously lived in a barrel, masturbated in public, and told Alexander the Great to get out of his light—all, so he said, to reveal the truth to his fellow Greeks about the arbitrariness of their customs.

The danger intrinsic in parrhesia ’s offensiveness to the powers-that-be—be they monarchs like Alexander or the democratic majority—fascinated Michel Foucault, who made it the subject of a series of lectures at Berkeley (home of the original campus Free Speech Movement) in the 1980s. Foucault noticed that the practice of parrhesia necessarily entailed an asymmetry of power, hence a “contract” between the audience (whether one or many), who pledged to tolerate any offense, and the speaker, who agreed to tell them the truth and risk the consequences.

If isegoria was fundamentally about equality, then, parrhesia was about liberty in the sense of license —not a right, but rather an unstable privilege enjoyed at the pleasure of the powerful. In Athenian democracy, that usually meant the majority of one’s fellow citizens, who were known to shout down or even drag speakers they disliked (including Plato’s brother, Glaucon) off the bema . This ancient version of “no-platforming” speakers who offended popular sensibilities could have deadly consequences—as the trial and death of Socrates, Plato’s friend and teacher, attests.

Noting the lack of success that Plato’s loved ones enjoyed with both isegoria and parrhesia during his lifetime may help explain why the father of Western philosophy didn’t set great store by either concept in his works. Plato no doubt would have noticed that, despite their differences, neither concept relied upon the most famous and distinctively Greek understanding of speech as logos —that is, reason or logical argument. Plato’s student, Aristotle, would identify logos as the capacity that made human beings essentially political animals in the first place. And yet neither isegoria nor parrhesia identified the reasoned speech and arguments of logos as uniquely deserving of equal liberty or license. Which seems to have been Plato’s point—how was it that a democratic city that prided itself on free speech, in all of its forms, put to death the one Athenian ruled by logos for speaking it?

Unsurprisingly perhaps, parrhesia survived the demise of Athenian democracy more easily than isegoria . As Greek democratic institutions were crushed by the Macedonian empire, then the Roman, parrhesia persisted as a rhetorical trope. A thousand years after the fall of Rome, Renaissance humanists would revive parrhesia as the distinctive virtue of the counselor speaking to a powerful prince in need of frank advice. While often couched in apologetics, this parrhesia retained its capacity to shock. The hard truths presented by Machiavelli and Hobbes to their would-be sovereigns would inspire generations of “libertine” thinkers to come.

Still, there was another adaptation of the parrhesiastic tradition of speaking truth to power available to early modern Europeans. The early Christians took a page from Diogenes’s book in spreading the “good news” of the Gospel throughout the Greco-Roman world—news that may not have sounded all that great to the Roman authorities. Many of the Christians who styled themselves as “Protestants” after the Reformation thought that a return to an authentically parrhesiastic and deliberately offensive form of evangelism was necessary to restore the Church to the purity of “primitive” Christianity. The early Quakers, for example, were known to interrupt Anglican services by shouting down the minister and to go naked in public “for a sign.”

Isegoria , too, had its early modern inheritors. But in the absence of democratic institutions like the Athenian ekklesia , it necessarily took a different form. The 1689 English Bill of Rights secured “the freedom of speech and debates in Parliament,” and so applied to members of Parliament only, and only when they were present in the chamber. For the many who lacked access to formal political participation, the idea of isegoria as an equal right of public speech belonging to all citizens would eventually migrate from the concrete public forum to the virtual public sphere.

For philosophers like Spinoza and Immanuel Kant, “free speech” meant primarily the intellectual freedom to participate in the public exchange of arguments. In 1784, five years before the French Revolution, Kant would insist that “the freedom to make public use of one’s reason” was the fundamental and equal right of any human being or citizen. Similarly, when Mill wrote On Liberty less than a century later, he did not defend the freedom of speech as such, but rather the individual “freedom of thought and discussion” in the collective pursuit of truth. While the equal liberty of isegoria remained essential for these thinkers, they shifted focus from actual speech —that is, the physical act of addressing others and participating in debate—to the mental exercise of reason and the exchange of ideas and arguments, very often in print. And so, over the course of two millennia, the Enlightenment finally united isegoria and logos in an idealized concept of free speech as freedom only for reasoned speech and rational deliberation that would have made Plato proud.

This logo-centric Enlightenment ideal remains central to the European understanding of free speech today. Efforts in Europe to criminalize hate speech owe an obvious debt to Kant, who described the freedom of (reasoned) speech in public as “the most harmless” of all. The same could never be said of ancient or early modern parrhesia , which was always threatening to speakers and listeners alike. Indeed, it was the obvious harm caused by their parrhesiastic evangelism to their neighbors’ religious sensibilities that led so many evangelical Protestants to flee prosecution (or persecution, as they saw it) in Europe for the greater liberty—or license—of the New World. American exceptionalism can thus be traced all the way back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: while America got the evangelicals and libertines, Europe kept the philosophers.

Debates about free speech on American campuses today suggest that the rival concepts of isegoria and parrhesia are alive and well. When student protesters claim that they are silencing certain voices—via no-platforming, social pressure, or outright censorship—in the name of free speech itself, it may be tempting to dismiss them as insincere, or at best confused. As I witnessed at an event at Kenyon College in September, when confronted with such arguments the response from gray-bearded free-speech fundamentalists like myself is to continue to preach to the converted about the First Amendment, but with an undercurrent of solidaristic despair about “kids these days” and their failure to understand the fundamentals of liberal democracy.

No wonder the “kids” are unpersuaded. While trigger warnings, safe spaces, and no-platforming grab headlines, poll after poll suggests that a more subtle, shift in mores is afoot. To a generation convinced that hateful speech is itself a form of violence or “silencing,” pleading the First Amendment is to miss the point. Most of these students do not see themselves as standing against free speech at all. What they care about is the equal right to speech, and equal access to a public forum in which the historically marginalized and excluded can be heard and count equally with the privileged. This is a claim to isegoria , and once one recognizes it as such, much else becomes clear—including the contrasting appeal to parrhesia by their opponents, who sometimes seem determined to reduce “free speech” to a license to offend.

Recognizing the ancient ideas at work in these modern arguments puts those of us committed to America’s parrhesiastic tradition of speaking truth to power in a better position to defend it. It suggests that to defeat the modern proponents of isegoria— and remind the modern parrhesiastes what they are fighting for—one must go beyond the First Amendment to the other, orienting principle of American democracy behind it, namely equality . After all, the genius of the First Amendment lies in bringing isegoria and parrhesia together, by securing the equal right and liberty of citizens not simply to “exercise their reason” but to speak their minds. It does so because the alternative is to allow the powers-that-happen-to-be to grant that liberty as a license to some individuals while denying it to others.

In contexts where the Constitution does not apply, like a private university, this opposition to arbitrariness is a matter of culture, not law, but it is no less pressing and important for that. As the evangelicals, protesters, and provocateurs who founded America’s parrhesiastic tradition knew well: When the rights of all become the privilege of a few, neither liberty nor equality can last.

What does freedom of speech mean in the internet era?

a paragraph on freedom of speech

More than two-thirds of the world is using the internet, a lot. Image:  REUTERS/Fred Prouser

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Stay up to date:, media, entertainment and sport.

  • The US Supreme Court is weighing in on whether social media sites can be compelled to include all viewpoints no matter how objectionable.
  • The high court’s decision could have a broad impact on how the internet is experienced.
  • Its deliberations raise questions about regulation, free speech and what makes for a healthy and equitable online existence.

In 1996, a man in South Africa locked himself into a glass cubicle and mostly limited his contact with the outside world to an internet connection for a few months . “The exciting aspect is realizing just how similar we all are in this growing global village,” he gushed to a reporter on the verge of his release.

What was an oddball stunt 28 years ago now verges on a rough description of daily existence. When Richard Weideman locked himself into that cubicle to stare at a screen all day, only about 1% of the global population was online, and social media was mostly limited to the 5,000 or so members of the WELL, an early virtual community. Now, more than two-thirds of the world is using the internet, a lot – and the global village is not in great shape .

The US Supreme Court is currently attempting to sort out exactly how internet discourse should be experienced. Are YouTube, Facebook and TikTok places where top-down decisions should continue to be made on what to publish and what to exclude? Or, are they more akin to a postal service that’s obliged to convey all views, no matter how unseemly?

By weighing in on two state laws mandating that kind of forced inclusion, the high court could end up ensuring free expression by erasing editorial guardrails – and the average scroll through social media might never be quite the same. A decision is expected by June .

This potential inflection point comes as just about everyone and their grandparents are now very online. Not participating doesn’t seem like an option anymore. “The modern public square” is one way to describe it. Oral arguments before the Supreme Court have surfaced other analogies , like a book shop, or a parade.

Excluding people from marching in your parade might seem unfair. But, it's your parade.

As more people get online, the desire to govern discourse has increased.

More than a century ago, a Supreme Court justice made his own analogy : speech that doesn’t merit protection is the type that creates a clear and present danger, like falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theater.

“Shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater” has since become a shopworn way to describe anything deemed to cross the free-speech line.

As it turns out, falsely shouting “fire” in crowded places had actually been a real thing that people did in the years before it showed up in a Supreme Court opinion. In 1911, at an opera house in the state of Pennsylvania, it resulted in dozens of people people being fatally crushed; another incident two years later in Michigan killed far more.

More recently, social media services banned certain political messaging because they believed it had also fatally incited people under false pretenses.

Those bans prompted reactive laws in Florida and Texas, triggering the current Supreme Court proceeding. The Texas legislation prohibits social media companies with big audiences from barring users over their viewpoints. The broader Florida law also forbids such deplatforming, and zeroes in on the practice of shadow banning .

That particular form of surreptitious censoring isn’t confined to the US, even if many popular social media services are headquartered there. The EU’s Digital Services Act, approved in 2022, is meant to prohibit shadow banning. In India, users trying to broach touchy subjects online have alleged that it’s happened. And in Mexico, some critics have actually advocated for more shadow banning of criminal cartels.

‘A euphemism for censorship’

In 1969, computer scientists in California established the first network connection via the precursor to the modern internet. They managed to send the initial two letters of a five-letter message from a refrigerator-sized machine at the University of California, Los Angeles, before the system crashed. Things progressed quickly from there.

In 2006, Google blew a lot of minds by paying nearly $1.7 billion for YouTube – an astounding price for something widely considered a repository for pirated content and cat videos.

By 2019, YouTube was earning a bit more than $15 billion in ad revenue annually, and had a monthly global audience of 2 billion users. It’s now at the crux of a debate with far-reaching implications; if the Florida and Texas laws are upheld by the Supreme Court, the site would likely have a much harder time barring hateful content, if it could at all.

That might be just fine for some people. One Supreme Court justice wondered during oral arguments whether the content moderation currently employed by YouTube and others is just “a euphemism for censorship.”

In some ways, we’ve already had at least a partial test run of unleashing a broader range of views on a social media channel. When it was still called Twitter, the site banned political ads due to concerns about spreading misinformation, and even banned a former US president. Now, as “X,” it’s reinstated both .

According to one recent analysis , X’s political center of gravity shifted notably after coming under new ownership in late 2022, mostly by design . The response has been mixed; sharp declines in downloads of the app and usage have been reported.

Richard Weideman, self-made captive of the internet circa 1996.

Government intervention to force that kind of recalibration, or to mandate any kind of content moderation decisions, would likely be unpopular. X, for example, has challenged a law passed in California in 2022 requiring social media companies to self-report the moderation decisions they’re making. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has called that law an informal censorship scheme .

Pundits seem skeptical that the Supreme Court will let the state laws requiring blanket viewpoint inclusion stand. During oral arguments, the court’s chief justice asked whether the government should really be forcing a "modern public square" run by private companies to publish anything. An attorney suggested the result might be so disruptive that, at least until they can figure out how to best proceed, some sites might consider narrowing their focus to “nothing but content about puppies.”

Workarounds are already available to some people who feel overlooked online. Starting an entirely new social media site of their own, for example . Or, if they happen to be among the richest people in the world, maybe buying one that’s already gained a huge audience.

Neither option is very realistic for most of us. And there may be a legitimate case to be made that ubiquitous platforms do sometimes unfairly marginalize certain voices.

(It's also possible that “content about puppies” would be preferable to what’s often available now).

Ultimately, no sweeping legal remedy may be at hand. Instead, we'll likely remain in an uneasy middle ground that only becomes more bewildering as artificial intelligence spreads – mostly relying on algorithm-induced familiarity , maybe wondering if it’s social-media ineptitude or shadow banning that’s keeping us from getting the attention we deserve, and not infrequently stepping out of our online comfort zone to steal a glimpse of something jarring.

More reading on freedom of expression online

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform :

  • “The US Supreme Court Holds the Future of the Internet in its Hands.” The headline says it all. ( Wired )
  • This pole dancer won an apology from Instagram for blocking hashtags she and her peers had been using “in error,” then proceeded to publish an academic study on shadow banning. ( The Conversation )
  • “Social media paints an alarmingly detailed picture.” Sometimes people don’t want to be seen and heard online, particularly if asked for their social media identifiers when applying for a visa, according to this piece. ( EFF )
  • “From Hashtags to Hush-Tags.” The removal of victims’ online content in conflict zones plays in favor of regimes committing atrocities, according to this analysis. ( The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy )
  • Have you heard the conspiracy theory about a “deep state” plot involving a pop megastar dating a professional American football player? According to an expert cited in this piece, it’s just more evidence of our current era of “evidence maximalism.” ( The Atlantic )
  • Everyone seems pretty certain that internet discourse has negatively affected behavior, politics, and society – but according to this piece, truly rigorous studies of these effects (and responsible media coverage of those studies) are rarer than you might think. ( LSE )
  • One thing social media services don’t appear to have issues with publishing: recruitment campaigns for intelligence agencies, according to this piece. ( RUSI )

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Media , Law , Digital Communications , and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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The Editorial Board

America Has a Free Speech Problem

a paragraph on freedom of speech

By The Editorial Board

The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values . It is separate from the newsroom.

For all the tolerance and enlightenment that modern society claims, Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

This social silencing, this depluralizing of America, has been evident for years, but dealing with it stirs yet more fear. It feels like a third rail, dangerous. For a strong nation and open society, that is dangerous.

How has this happened? In large part, it’s because the political left and the right are caught in a destructive loop of condemnation and recrimination around cancel culture. Many on the left refuse to acknowledge that cancel culture exists at all, believing that those who complain about it are offering cover for bigots to peddle hate speech. Many on the right, for all their braying about cancel culture, have embraced an even more extreme version of censoriousness as a bulwark against a rapidly changing society, with laws that would ban books, stifle teachers and discourage open discussion in classrooms.

Many Americans are understandably confused, then, about what they can say and where they can say it. People should be able to put forward viewpoints, ask questions and make mistakes and take unpopular but good-faith positions on issues that society is still working through — all without fearing cancellation.

However you define cancel culture, Americans know it exists and feel its burden. In a new national poll commissioned by Times Opinion and Siena College , only 34 percent of Americans said they believed that all Americans enjoyed freedom of speech completely. The poll found that 84 percent of adults said it is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that some Americans do not speak freely in everyday situations because of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.

This poll and other recent surveys from the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation reveal a crisis of confidence around one of America’s most basic values. Freedom of speech and expression is vital to human beings’ search for truth and knowledge about our world. A society that values freedom of speech can benefit from the full diversity of its people and their ideas. At the individual level, human beings cannot flourish without the confidence to take risks, pursue ideas and express thoughts that others might reject.

Most important, freedom of speech is the bedrock of democratic self-government. If people feel free to express their views in their communities, the democratic process can respond to and resolve competing ideas. Ideas that go unchallenged by opposing views risk becoming weak and brittle rather than being strengthened by tough scrutiny. When speech is stifled or when dissenters are shut out of public discourse, a society also loses its ability to resolve conflict, and it faces the risk of political violence.

We’ve excerpted a few of the poll’s other questions below. Choose your answers to see how your opinions compare to Americans’.

1. Over the past year, have you held your tongue because you were concerned about retaliation or harsh criticism?

Select an answer to see the poll’s results.

2. Over the past year, have you retaliated against or harshly criticized another person because of something he or she said?

3. How much of a problem is it that some Americans do not exercise their freedom of speech in everyday situations out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism?

The Times Opinion/Siena College poll found that 46 percent of respondents said they felt less free to talk about politics compared to a decade ago. Thirty percent said they felt the same. Only 21 percent of people reported feeling freer, even though in the past decade there was a vast expansion of voices in the public square through social media.

“There’s a crisis around the freedom of speech now because many people don’t understand it, they weren’t taught what it means and why it matters,” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of PEN America, a free speech organization. “Safeguards for free speech have been essential to almost all social progress in the country, from the civil rights movement to women’s suffrage to the current fights over racial justice and the police.”

Times Opinion commissioned the poll to provide more data and insight that can inform a debate mired in extremes. This editorial board plans to identify a wide range of threats to freedom of speech in the coming months and to offer possible solutions. Freedom of speech requires not just a commitment to openness and tolerance in the abstract. It demands conscientiousness about both the power of speech and its potential harms. We believe it isn’t enough for Americans to just believe in the rights of others to speak freely; they should also find ways to actively support and protect those rights.

We are under no illusion that this is easy. Our era, especially, is not made for this; social media is awash in speech of the point-scoring, picking-apart, piling-on, put-down variety. A deluge of misinformation and disinformation online has heightened this tension. Making the internet a more gracious place does not seem high on anyone’s agenda, and certainly not for most of the tech companies that control it.

But the old lesson of “think before you speak” has given way to the new lesson of “speak at your peril.” You can’t consider yourself a supporter of free speech and be policing and punishing speech more than protecting it. Free speech demands a greater willingness to engage with ideas we dislike and greater self-restraint in the face of words that challenge and even unsettle us.

It is worth noting here the important distinction between what the First Amendment protects (freedom from government restrictions on expression) and the popular conception of free speech (the affirmative right to speak your mind in public, on which the law is silent). The world is witnessing, in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the strangling of free speech through government censorship and imprisonment. That is not the kind of threat to freedom of expression that Americans face. Yet something has been lost; the poll clearly shows a dissatisfaction with free speech as it is experienced and understood by Americans today.

Consider this finding from our poll: Fifty-five percent of respondents said that they had held their tongue over the past year because they were concerned about retaliation or harsh criticism. Women were more likely to report doing so — 61 percent, compared to 49 percent of men. Older respondents were less likely to have done so than other age groups. Republicans (58 percent) were slightly more likely to have held their tongues than Democrats (52 percent) or independents (56 percent).

At the same time, 22 percent of adults reported that they had retaliated against or were harshly critical of someone over something he or she said. Adults 18 to 34 years old were far more likely to have done so than older Americans; liberals were more likely to have done so than moderates or conservatives.

Elijah Afere, a 25-year-old I.T. technician from Union, N.J., said that he worried about the larger implications of chilled speech for democracy. “You can’t give people the benefit of the doubt to just hold a conversation anymore. You’ve got to worry about feeling judged,” he said. “Political views can even affect your family ties, how you relate to your uncle or the other side. It’s really not good.”

Roy Block, 76, from San Antonio, described himself as conservative and said he has been alarmed by scenes of parents being silenced at school board meetings over the past year. “I think it’s mostly conservatives that are being silenced,” he said. “But regardless, I think it should be a two-way street. Everybody should have an opportunity to speak and especially in open gathering and open forum.”

1. Do you feel more free, less free or as free as you did before to express your viewpoint in most situations on a daily basis today than you did 10 years ago on politics?

2. Do you feel more free, less free or as free as you did before to express your viewpoint in most situations on a daily basis today than you did 10 years ago on race relations?

Pollsters asked how free people felt today to discuss six topics — including religion, politics, gender identity and race relations — compared to 10 years ago: more free, less free or the same. Those who felt freest were Black respondents: At least 30 percent of them said they felt more free to speak on every topic, including 42 percent on race relations, the highest share of any racial or ethnic group. Still, that sentiment of more freedom among Black respondents reached only 46 percent, not a majority (the 46 percent being on the issue of gender identity).

At the same time, a full 84 percent of Black people polled shared the concern of this editorial that it was a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem that some Americans do not exercise their freedom of speech out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism. And 45 percent of Black people and nearly 60 percent of Latinos and white people polled reported that they’d held their tongues in the past year out of fear of retaliation or harsh criticism.

While the level of national anxiety around free speech is apparent, the solutions are much less clear. In the poll, 66 percent of respondents agreed with the following: “Our democracy is built upon the free, open and safe exchange of ideas, no matter how different they are. We should encourage all speech so long as it is done in a way that doesn’t threaten others.” Yet a full 30 percent agreed that “while I support free speech, sometimes you have shut down speech that is antidemocratic, bigoted or simply untrue.” Those who identified themselves as Democrats and liberals showed a higher level of support for sometimes shutting down such speech.

The full-throated defense of free speech was once a liberal ideal. Many of the legal victories that expanded the realm of permissible speech in the United States came in defense of liberal speakers against the power of the government — a ruling that students couldn’t be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, a ruling protecting the rights of students to demonstrate against the Vietnam War, a ruling allowing the burning of the American flag.

And yet many progressives appear to have lost faith in that principle. This was a source of great frustration for one of those who responded to our poll, Emily Leonard, a 93-year-old from Hartford, Conn., who described herself as a liberal. She said she was alarmed about reports of speakers getting shouted down on college campuses. “We need to hear what people think, even though we disagree with them. It is the basis of our democracy. And it’s absolutely essential to a continuing democracy,” she said. “Liberal as I am — a little to the left of Lenin — I think these kids and this whole cancel culture and so-called woke is doing us so much harm. They’re undermining the Constitution. That’s what it comes down to.”

The progressive movement in America has been a force for good in many ways: for social and racial justice, for pay equity, for a fairer system and society and for calling out hate and hate speech. In the course of their fight for tolerance, many progressives have become intolerant of those who disagree with them or express other opinions and taken on a kind of self-righteousness and censoriousness that the right long displayed and the left long abhorred. It has made people uncertain about the contours of speech: Many know they shouldn’t utter racist things, but they don’t understand what they can say about race or can say to a person of a different race from theirs. Attacking people in the workplace, on campus, on social media and elsewhere who express unpopular views from a place of good faith is the practice of a closed society.

The Times does not allow hate speech in our pages, even though it is broadly protected by the Constitution, and we support that principle . But there is a difference between hate speech and speech that challenges us in ways that we might find difficult or even offensive.

At the same time, all Americans should be deeply concerned about an avalanche of legislation passed by Republican-controlled legislatures around the country that gags discussion of certain topics and clearly violates the spirit of the First Amendment, if not the letter of the law.

It goes far beyond conservative states yanking books about race and sex from public school libraries . Since 2021 in 40 state legislatures, 175 bills have been introduced or prefiled that target what teachers can say and what students can learn, often with severe penalties. Of those, 13 have become law in 11 states, and 106 are still under consideration. All told, 99 bills currently target K-12 public schools, 44 target higher education, and 59 include punishment for violators, according to a running tally kept by PEN America . In some instance s, the proposed bills failed to become law. In other cases, the courts should declare them unconstitutional.

These bills include Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill , which would restrict what teachers and students can talk about and allows for parents to file lawsuits. If the law goes into force, watch for lawsuits against schools that restrict the free speech rights of students to discuss things like sexuality, established by earlier Supreme Court rulings.

The new gag laws coincide with a similar barrage of bills that ostensibly target critical race theory, an idea that has percolated down from law schools to the broader public in recent years as a way to understand the pervasiveness of racism. The moral panic around critical race theory has morphed into a vast effort to restrict discussions of race, sex, American history and other topics that conservatives say are divisive. Several states have now passed these gag laws restricting what can be said in public schools, colleges and universities, and state agencies and institutions.

In passing laws that restrict speech, conservatives have adopted the language of harm that some liberals used in the past to restrict speech — the idea that speech itself can cause an unacceptable harm, which has led to a proliferation of campus speech codes and the use of trigger warnings in college classrooms.

Now conservatives have used the idea of harmful speech to their own ends: An anti-critical-race-theory law in Tennessee passed last year , for instance, prohibits promoting the concept that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex” — a measure aimed at avoiding the “distress” that students might feel when learning about racist or misogynist elements of American history. (Unmentioned, of course, is the potential discomfort felt by students who are fed a whitewashed version of American history.)

Liberals — and anyone concerned with protecting free speech — are right to fight against these pernicious laws. But legal limits are not the only constraints on Americans’ freedom of speech. On college campuses and in many workplaces, speech that others find harmful or offensive can result not only in online shaming but also in the loss of livelihood. Some progressives believe this has provided a necessary, and even welcome, check on those in power. But when social norms around acceptable speech are constantly shifting and when there is no clear definition of harm, these constraints on speech can turn into arbitrary rules with disproportionate consequences.

Free speech is predicated on mutual respect — that of people for one another and of a government for the people it serves. Every day, in communities across the country, Americans must speak to one another freely to refine and improve the elements of our social contract: What do we owe the most vulnerable in our neighborhoods? What conduct should we expect from public servants? What ideas are so essential to understanding American democracy that they should be taught in schools? When public discourse in America is narrowed, it becomes harder to answer these and the many other urgent questions we face as a society.

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] .

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram .

An earlier version of this editorial mischaracterized a Tennessee law banning the teaching of critical race theory. It prohibits promoting the concept that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.” It does not ban lesson plans that could cause students distress.

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15.4 Censorship and Freedom of Speech

Learning objectives.

  • Explain the FCC’s process of classifying material as indecent, obscene, or profane.
  • Describe how the Hay’s Code affected 20th-century American mass media.

Figure 15.3


Attempts to censor material, such as banning books, typically attract a great deal of controversy and debate.

Timberland Regional Library – Banned Books Display At The Lacey Library – CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

To fully understand the issues of censorship and freedom of speech and how they apply to modern media, we must first explore the terms themselves. Censorship is defined as suppressing or removing anything deemed objectionable. A common, everyday example can be found on the radio or television, where potentially offensive words are “bleeped” out. More controversial is censorship at a political or religious level. If you’ve ever been banned from reading a book in school, or watched a “clean” version of a movie on an airplane, you’ve experienced censorship.

Much as media legislation can be controversial due to First Amendment protections, censorship in the media is often hotly debated. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press (Case Summaries).” Under this definition, the term “speech” extends to a broader sense of “expression,” meaning verbal, nonverbal, visual, or symbolic expression. Historically, many individuals have cited the First Amendment when protesting FCC decisions to censor certain media products or programs. However, what many people do not realize is that U.S. law establishes several exceptions to free speech, including defamation, hate speech, breach of the peace, incitement to crime, sedition, and obscenity.

Classifying Material as Indecent, Obscene, or Profane

To comply with U.S. law, the FCC prohibits broadcasters from airing obscene programming. The FCC decides whether or not material is obscene by using a three-prong test.

Obscene material:

  • causes the average person to have lustful or sexual thoughts;
  • depicts lawfully offensive sexual conduct; and
  • lacks literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

Material meeting all of these criteria is officially considered obscene and usually applies to hard-core pornography (Federal Communications Commission). “Indecent” material, on the other hand, is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely.

Indecent material:

  • contains graphic sexual or excretory depictions;
  • dwells at length on depictions of sexual or excretory organs; and
  • is used simply to shock or arouse an audience.

Material deemed indecent cannot be broadcast between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., to make it less likely that children will be exposed to it (Federal Communications Commission).

These classifications symbolize the media’s long struggle with what is considered appropriate and inappropriate material. Despite the existence of the guidelines, however, the process of categorizing materials is a long and arduous one.

There is a formalized process for deciding what material falls into which category. First, the FCC relies on television audiences to alert the agency of potentially controversial material that may require classification. The commission asks the public to file a complaint via letter, e-mail, fax, telephone, or the agency’s website, including the station, the community, and the date and time of the broadcast. The complaint should “contain enough detail about the material broadcast that the FCC can understand the exact words and language used (Federal Communications Commission).” Citizens are also allowed to submit tapes or transcripts of the aired material. Upon receiving a complaint, the FCC logs it in a database, which a staff member then accesses to perform an initial review. If necessary, the agency may contact either the station licensee or the individual who filed the complaint for further information.

Once the FCC has conducted a thorough investigation, it determines a final classification for the material. In the case of profane or indecent material, the agency may take further actions, including possibly fining the network or station (Federal Communications Commission). If the material is classified as obscene, the FCC will instead refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice, which has the authority to criminally prosecute the media outlet. If convicted in court, violators can be subject to criminal fines and/or imprisonment (Federal Communications Commission).

Each year, the FCC receives thousands of complaints regarding obscene, indecent, or profane programming. While the agency ultimately defines most programs cited in the complaints as appropriate, many complaints require in-depth investigation and may result in fines called notices of apparent liability (NAL) or federal investigation.

Table 15.1 FCC Indecency Complaints and NALs: 2000–2005

Violence and Sex: Taboos in Entertainment

Although popular memory thinks of old black-and-white movies as tame or sanitized, many early filmmakers filled their movies with sexual or violent content. Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 silent film The Great Train Robbery , for example, is known for expressing “the appealing, deeply embedded nature of violence in the frontier experience and the American civilizing process,” and showcases “the rather spontaneous way that the attendant violence appears in the earliest developments of cinema (Film Reference).” The film ends with an image of a gunman firing a revolver directly at the camera, demonstrating that cinema’s fascination with violence was present even 100 years ago.

Porter was not the only U.S. filmmaker working during the early years of cinema to employ graphic violence. Films such as Intolerance (1916) and The Birth of a Nation (1915) are notorious for their overt portrayals of violent activities. The director of both films, D. W. Griffith, intentionally portrayed content graphically because he “believed that the portrayal of violence must be uncompromised to show its consequences for humanity (Film Reference).”

Although audiences responded eagerly to the new medium of film, some naysayers believed that Hollywood films and their associated hedonistic culture was a negative moral influence. As you read in Chapter 8 “Movies” , this changed during the 1930s with the implementation of the Hays Code. Formally termed the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, the code is popularly known by the name of its author, Will Hays, the chairman of the industry’s self-regulatory Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA), which was founded in 1922 to “police all in-house productions (Film Reference).” Created to forestall what was perceived to be looming governmental control over the industry, the Hays Code was, essentially, Hollywood self-censorship. The code displayed the motion picture industry’s commitment to the public, stating:

Motion picture producers recognize the high trust and confidence which have been placed in them by the people of the world and which have made motion pictures a universal form of entertainment…. Hence, though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purposes of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking (Arts Reformation).

Among other requirements, the Hays Code enacted strict guidelines on the portrayal of violence. Crimes such as murder, theft, robbery, safecracking, and “dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc.” could not be presented in detail (Arts Reformation). The code also addressed the portrayals of sex, saying that “the sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing (Arts Reformation).”

Figure 15.4


As the chairman of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, Will Hays oversaw the creation of the industry’s self-censoring Hays Code.

Wikimedia Commons – public domain.

As television grew in popularity during the mid-1900s, the strict code placed on the film industry spread to other forms of visual media. Many early sitcoms, for example, showed married couples sleeping in separate twin beds to avoid suggesting sexual relations.

By the end of the 1940s, the MPPDA had begun to relax the rigid regulations of the Hays Code. Propelled by the changing moral standards of the 1950s and 1960s, this led to a gradual reintroduction of violence and sex into mass media.

Ratings Systems

As filmmakers began pushing the boundaries of acceptable visual content, the Hollywood studio industry scrambled to create a system to ensure appropriate audiences for films. In 1968, the successor of the MPPDA, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), established the familiar film ratings system to help alert potential audiences to the type of content they could expect from a production.

Film Ratings

Although the ratings system changed slightly in its early years, by 1972 it seemed that the MPAA had settled on its ratings. These ratings consisted of G (general audiences), PG (parental guidance suggested), R (restricted to ages 17 or up unless accompanied by a parent), and X (completely restricted to ages 17 and up). The system worked until 1984, when several major battles took place over controversial material. During that year, the highly popular films Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins both premiered with a PG rating. Both films—and subsequently the MPAA—received criticism for the explicit violence presented on screen, which many viewers considered too intense for the relatively mild PG rating. In response to the complaints, the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating to indicate that some material may be inappropriate for children under the age of 13.

Another change came to the ratings system in 1990, with the introduction of the NC-17 rating. Carrying the same restrictions as the existing X rating, the new designation came at the behest of the film industry to distinguish mature films from pornographic ones. Despite the arguably milder format of the rating’s name, many filmmakers find it too strict in practice; receiving an NC-17 rating often leads to a lack of promotion or distribution because numerous movie theaters and rental outlets refuse to carry films with this rating.

Television and Video Game Ratings

Regardless of these criticisms, most audience members find the rating system helpful, particularly when determining what is appropriate for children. The adoption of industry ratings for television programs and video games reflects the success of the film ratings system. During the 1990s, for example, the broadcasting industry introduced a voluntary rating system not unlike that used for films to accompany all TV shows. These ratings are displayed on screen during the first 15 seconds of a program and include TV-Y (all children), TV-Y7 (children ages 7 and up), TV-Y7-FV (older children—fantasy violence), TV-G (general audience), TV-PG (parental guidance suggested), TV-14 (parents strongly cautioned), and TV-MA (mature audiences only).

Table 15.2 Television Ratings System

Source: http://www.tvguidelines.org/ratings.htm

At about the same time that television ratings appeared, the Entertainment Software Rating Board was established to provide ratings on video games. Video game ratings include EC (early childhood), E (everyone), E 10+ (ages 10 and older), T (teen), M (mature), and AO (adults only).

Table 15.3 Video Game Ratings System

Source: http://www.esrb.org/ratings/ratings_guide.jsp

Even with these ratings, the video game industry has long endured criticism over violence and sex in video games. One of the top-selling video game series in the world, Grand Theft Auto , is highly controversial because players have the option to solicit prostitution or murder civilians (Media Awareness). In 2010, a report claimed that “38 percent of the female characters in video games are scantily clad, 23 percent baring breasts or cleavage, 31 percent exposing thighs, another 31 percent exposing stomachs or midriffs, and 15 percent baring their behinds (Media Awareness).” Despite multiple lawsuits, some video game creators stand by their decisions to place graphic displays of violence and sex in their games on the grounds of freedom of speech.

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Government devised the three-prong test to determine if material can be considered “obscene.” The FCC applies these guidelines to determine whether broadcast content can be classified as profane, indecent, or obscene.
  • Established during the 1930s, the Hays Code placed strict regulations on film, requiring that filmmakers avoid portraying violence and sex in films.
  • After the decline of the Hays Code during the 1960s, the MPAA introduced a self-policed film ratings system. This system later inspired similar ratings for television and video game content.

Look over the MPAA’s explanation of each film rating online at http://www.mpaa.org/ratings/what-each-rating-means . View a film with these requirements in mind and think about how the rating was selected. Then answer the following short-answer questions. Each response should be a minimum of one paragraph.

  • Would this material be considered “obscene” under the Hays Code criteria? Would it be considered obscene under the FCC’s three-prong test? Explain why or why not. How would the film be different if it were released in accordance to the guidelines of the Hays Code?
  • Do you agree with the rating your chosen film was given? Why or why not?

Arts Reformation, “The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 (Hays Code),” ArtsReformation, http://www.artsreformation.com/a001/hays-code.html .

Case Summaries, “First Amendment—Religion and Expression,” http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment01/ .

Federal Communications Commission, “Obscenity, Indecency & Profanity: Frequently Asked Questions,” http://www.fcc.gov/eb/oip/FAQ.html .

Film Reference, “Violence,” Film Reference, http://www.filmreference.com/encyclopedia/Romantic-Comedy-Yugoslavia/Violence-BEGINNINGS.html .

Media Awareness, Media Issues, “Sex and Relationships in the Media,” http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/issues/stereotyping/women_and_girls/women_sex.cfm .

Media Awareness, Media Issues, “Violence in Media Entertainment,” http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/issues/violence/violence_entertainment.cfm .

Understanding Media and Culture Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

Home — Essay Samples — Social Issues — Freedom of Speech — The Significance of Freedom of Speech


The Significance of Freedom of Speech

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Published: Jan 29, 2024

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Table of contents

Definition of freedom of speech, importance of freedom of speech, limitations on freedom of speech, controversial cases and debates, freedom of speech in the digital age, counterarguments and rebuttal.

  • United Nations. "Universal Declaration of Human Rights." United Nations, 1948.
  • Shapiro, David L. "Freedom of Speech: History , Ideas, and Legal Due Process." New York University Press, 2005.
  • Matal, Michael (ed). "Freedom of Speech." Oxford University Press, 2017.

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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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  • Essay on Freedom of Speech in English Free PDF download


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

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

Long Essay on Freedom of Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Essay on Freedom of Speech

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

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

Key Highlights of the Essay - Freedom of Speech

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

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

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

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

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


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

1. Mention five lines for Freedom of Speech Essay?

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

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

iii) Freedom of speech is never absolute in nature.

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

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

2. Explain Freedom of Speech?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. What is Freedom of Speech?

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

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

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

8. Is Freedom of Speech absolute?

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

Human Nature and the Freedom of Speech in Different Countries Analytical Essay

Introduction, importance of freedom of speech, freedom of speech, limitations to freedom of speech, works cited.

Freedom of speech is the freedom that citizens are constitutionally granted by their country to allow the citizens to speak without limitations or censorship of what they say.

This freedom varies from country to country depending on levels of democracy and political situations. Freedom of speech is always advocated for and governments urged to constitutionally protect their citizens’ freedom of speech to enable people discuss issues that affect them.

There have also been views of negative effects of unmonitored freedom of speech calling for a balance between the freedom of speech and its limitations. This paper seeks to discuss freedom of speech. The paper will look at the human nature that necessitates speech and expression, freedom of speech as applied in different countries and limitations that freedom of speech faces.

The nature of human beings to coexist with one another and developments that have led to democratic government systems have made speech and interactions fundamental elements in every society.

Developments of government systems and establishment of democracies have played a role in enlisting the participation of citizens in government processes in order to uphold the already established democratic levels in societies. It is this need to retain or even further develop democratic systems that has in the past led to the fight for freedom of speech.

The same reason still plays an important role in ensuring that provisions of freedom of speech are correctly implemented to take care of the intentions that were originally considered during formulations of such policies that governs freedom of speech. The nature of human beings to interact and communicate with one another is another element that necessitates freedom of speech.

Economic, political and even social aspects of life require an ultimate decision regarding a course of action to be taken regarding any particular issue. Matters that affect a large mass of people such as politics and national economic matters have been regarded as public aspects that are determined collectively (Mediainst 1).

Citizens therefore find it necessary to participate in such discussions pertaining to these public issues with the aim of checking and putting to task leaders and representatives to ensure that the interest of the people are looked into. Interactive forums also help people to be informed on current and developing issues in a society.

Freedom of speech, therefore, allows for transfer of information that helps different category of people in decision making. Effective decisions regarding election of political leaders, management of business activities and even personal and family decisions depends on information.

Information about government economic policies and trends in a country will, for example, affect small scale business established in a given township. Freedom of speech and access to information is therefore critical to citizens in their daily lives (Mediainst 1).

Freedom of speech is an element that is occasionally protected by laws of various countries. In the United States, for example, freedom of speech is strictly protected by the country’s first amendment.

According to the first amendment, freedom of speech is protected from manipulation by selfish individuals such as politicians who could be in power and intend to undermine criticisms from the general public.

For this reason, the first amendment of the United States constitution provided protection of the freedom of speech from legislative institutions such as the congress. Freedom of speech has also been liberalized in the United States to include non verbal expressions, motions and symbols that includes dressing codes (Camp 1).

Xinyi Wang explained the elements of the United States’ first amendment, which clearly, or as one would think it does, expresses the sanctity of freedom of speech in the United States. The constitution expressly states that the congress is prohibited from making legislations that would touch on the freedom of speech.

The first amendment also included other elements that are related to freedom of speech such as issues pertaining to the press and the fact that Americans were allowed to converge and share opinions in a peaceful manner and to stand and question their government in case the citizens felt aggrieved by the government (Xinyi 1).

In its application, freedom of speech protects subjects from liability to whatever they say, provided that the subject statements uttered by an individual are under the protection of freedom of speech as provided by a particular country.

Freedom of speech enjoyed by legislators in their course of legislation for example protects them from any liability emanating from anything that the legislatures say while in their legislative process.

The constitution of Canada for example provides that “no legislative councilor or member of the legislative assembly shall be liable to any action, arrest, or imprisonment, or damages” (Canadian constitution 69) as long as subject commission were undertaken in a process of conducting legislative duties in the premises for such duties (Canadian constitution 69).

In Britain, legislatures are only protected from speech uttered in their process of legislation. A similar application of the freedom of speech is applicable to other citizens.

Provisions are made by constitutions in different countries regarding freedoms that citizens are accorded with regard to speech and measures are then taken to ensure that subject to constitutional provisions, no citizens are held liable to any utterance that is made within constitutional provisions of freedom of speech (Canadian constitution 69).

Even though freedom of speech is expressly stated in a number of countries’ constitutions, and provisions made that freedom of speech shall be utterly protected by constitutions, a review of application of law by judicial systems reveals that constitutional provisions of freedom of speech have under certain circumstances been overridden by other factors.

When freedom of speech is not applicable, for whatever legal reason, then it means that constitutional provisions on the freedom have limitations with respect to interpretation and application. In the United States, for example, matters such as: “national security, justice or personal safety-overrides freedom of speech” (Freedomforum 1).

This means that an individual’s freedom of speech will be overlooked if any or all of these three issues are involved. A person whose speech threatens such issues like national security or infringes rights of other citizens might not be protected by freedom of speech.

The judicial system in the United States has, for example, established over time that utterances that: poses a threat to causing danger or violence, undermine “social value” and “conflict with other legitimate social or government interests” (Freedomforum 1) are not protected by freedom of speech (Freedomforum 1).

Limitations in the freedom of speech are also propagated by international bodies such as the United Nations. According to the United Nations resolution in its 1948 general assembly, it was agreed upon that as much as people had to be accorded freedom of expression, countries and states were not prevented from establishing measures that can possibly regulate parties in their process of disseminating information.

It was resolved that freedom of speech and freedom of expression calls for a level of responsibility on the parts of citizens and entities and thus governments were not restricted by the resolution from “requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises” (Whitmore 1).

The resolution at the United Nations assembly also stated that freedom of speech was subjected matters that are fundamental to “democratic society, interest of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for protection of health or morals” (Whitmore 1) among other factors.

This resolution thus recognizes territorial sovereignty in legislations that limits freedom of speech of an individual when it is considered to undermine sensitive public issues (Whitmore 1).

There are a number of limitations which have been imposed on freedom of speech within the United States. Obscenity has, for example, been expressly excluded from freedom of speech by the judicial system of the United States.

Other limitations on freedom of speech and press in the United States include “child pornography, defamation, speech harmful to children, compelled speech” (Cohen 26) among others. The need for limitation of freedom of speech is also expressed by Sadurski Wojciech in an argument that “self fulfillment” should be accompanied by self-control (Sadurski 18).

Freedom of speech is considered to bring satisfaction to individuals and for this reason, people must ensure that their freedom does not harm the fulfillment that other people wants to enjoy. Limitations are therefore necessary to ensure that every citizen enjoys his or her freedom (Sadurski 18).

Freedom of speech is important in a democratic nation and is internationally recognized and advocated for. It has been entrenched in a number of national constitutions and over time enhanced due to movements of human rights activists.

The provision and protection of freedom of speech by national constitutions is however at the same time limited by the same constitutions subject to rights of other citizens and national interests.

Camp, Julie. Freedom of expression . California State University , 2005. Web.

Canadian constitution. The Canadian constitution . Canada: UAP archive. Print.

Cohen, Henry. Freedom of speech and press: exceptions to the first amendment . FAS, 2009. Web.

Freedomforum. Education for freedom . Freedom Forum. Web.

Mediainst. Importance of freedom of speech . Medianst. Web.

Sadurski, Wojciech. Freedom of speech and its limits . New York, NY: Springer, 2001. Print.

Whitmore Marc. Freedom of speech, restrictions on . Idebate Organization, 2009. Web.

Xinyi, Wang. Freedom of speech in the United States constitution . Perspectives. Web.

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IvyPanda. (2022, March 17). Human Nature and the Freedom of Speech in Different Countries. https://ivypanda.com/essays/freedom-of-speech/

"Human Nature and the Freedom of Speech in Different Countries." IvyPanda , 17 Mar. 2022, ivypanda.com/essays/freedom-of-speech/.

IvyPanda . (2022) 'Human Nature and the Freedom of Speech in Different Countries'. 17 March.

IvyPanda . 2022. "Human Nature and the Freedom of Speech in Different Countries." March 17, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/freedom-of-speech/.

1. IvyPanda . "Human Nature and the Freedom of Speech in Different Countries." March 17, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/freedom-of-speech/.


IvyPanda . "Human Nature and the Freedom of Speech in Different Countries." March 17, 2022. https://ivypanda.com/essays/freedom-of-speech/.

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Freedom Essay for Students and Children

500+ words essay on freedom.

Freedom is something that everybody has heard of but if you ask for its meaning then everyone will give you different meaning. This is so because everyone has a different opinion about freedom. For some freedom means the freedom of going anywhere they like, for some it means to speak up form themselves, and for some, it is liberty of doing anything they like.

Freedom Essay

Meaning of Freedom

The real meaning of freedom according to books is. Freedom refers to a state of independence where you can do what you like without any restriction by anyone. Moreover, freedom can be called a state of mind where you have the right and freedom of doing what you can think off. Also, you can feel freedom from within.

The Indian Freedom

Indian is a country which was earlier ruled by Britisher and to get rid of these rulers India fight back and earn their freedom. But during this long fight, many people lost their lives and because of the sacrifice of those people and every citizen of the country, India is a free country and the world largest democracy in the world.

Moreover, after independence India become one of those countries who give his citizen some freedom right without and restrictions.

The Indian Freedom Right

India drafted a constitution during the days of struggle with the Britishers and after independence it became applicable. In this constitution, the Indian citizen was given several fundaments right which is applicable to all citizen equally. More importantly, these right are the freedom that the constitution has given to every citizen.

These right are right to equality, right to freedom, right against exploitation, right to freedom of religion¸ culture and educational right, right to constitutional remedies, right to education. All these right give every freedom that they can’t get in any other country.

Value of Freedom

The real value of anything can only be understood by those who have earned it or who have sacrificed their lives for it. Freedom also means liberalization from oppression. It also means the freedom from racism, from harm, from the opposition, from discrimination and many more things.

Get the huge list of more than 500 Essay Topics and Ideas

Freedom does not mean that you violate others right, it does not mean that you disregard other rights. Moreover, freedom means enchanting the beauty of nature and the environment around us.

The Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech is the most common and prominent right that every citizen enjoy. Also, it is important because it is essential for the all-over development of the country.

Moreover, it gives way to open debates that helps in the discussion of thought and ideas that are essential for the growth of society.

Besides, this is the only right that links with all the other rights closely. More importantly, it is essential to express one’s view of his/her view about society and other things.

To conclude, we can say that Freedom is not what we think it is. It is a psychological concept everyone has different views on. Similarly, it has a different value for different people. But freedom links with happiness in a broadway.

FAQs on Freedom

Q.1 What is the true meaning of freedom? A.1 Freedom truly means giving equal opportunity to everyone for liberty and pursuit of happiness.

Q.2 What is freedom of expression means? A.2 Freedom of expression means the freedom to express one’s own ideas and opinions through the medium of writing, speech, and other forms of communication without causing any harm to someone’s reputation.

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Essay on Freedom of Speech for Children and Students

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Essay on Freedom of Speech: Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental rights of the citizens of India. Many countries around the world allow freedom of speech to its citizens to empower them to share their thoughts and views.

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The government of India and many other countries provide freedom of speech to their citizens. This is especially so in the countries with democratic government. Here are essays of varying lengths on the topic Freedom of Speech to help you with the same in your exam. You can select any Freedom of Speech essay as per your need:

Long and Short Essay on Freedom of Speech in English

We have provided below short and long essay on freedom of speech in English. These essay have been written in simple English to let you easily remember the main points and present them whenever required.

These freedom of speech essay will brief you about the right to freedom of speech under the Constitution and what is its significance.

You can use these freedom of speech essays in your school’s/college’s essay writing, speech or debate competitions. You can also use these essays while having normal discussions with your family and friends.

Freedom of Speech Essay 1 (200 words)

Freedom of Speech is one of the fundamental rights provided to the citizens of India. It allows the citizens of our country to express their ideas and share their opinions freely. It allows the general public as well as the media to comment on any of the political activities and even show discontentment against the ones they find inappropriate.

Just like India many other countries also provide the Freedom of Speech and Expression to its citizens but with some limitations. The restrictions put on the Freedom of Speech vary from country to country. There are also many countries that do not allow this basic human right. The general public and the media in such countries are refrained from commenting on the activities carried out by the government. Criticism of government, political parties or ministers is a punishable offense in such countries.

While Freedom of Speech is essential for the overall growth of the society it may have certain negative repercussions too. People must not use it to disrespect or instigate others. The media must also act responsibly and not misuse the Freedom of Speech.

I am lucky to have born in India – a country that respects its citizens and provides them with all the rights that are needed for their growth and development.

Freedom of Speech Essay 2 (300 words)


Freedom of speech is one of the basic rights given to the citizens of most of the countries across the globe. It enables the people residing in those countries to speak their mind without the fear of being punished by the law.

Origin of Freedom of Speech

The concept of freedom of speech originated long back. England’s Bill of Rights 1689 adopted freedom of speech as a constitutional right and it is still in effect. The French revolution in 1789 adopted the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This further affirmed the Freedom of Speech as an undeniable right. The Declaration of Freedom of Speech and Expression in Article 11 states:

“The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law”.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted in the year 1948 also states that everyone should have the freedom to express their ideas and opinions. Freedom of Speech and Expression has now formed a part of the international and regional human rights law.

Freedom of Speech – The Basis of Democracy

A democratic government gives various rights to its people including the right to elect the government of their country. Freedom of speech and expression is known to form the basis of a democratic nation. Merely electing the government is no use if the citizens do not have the right to voice their opinion in case they feel that the elected government is not performing as per the standards set by it initially. This is why right to freedom of speech is an essential right in the democratic nations. It forms the basis of democracy.

Freedom of speech empowers the people to share their ideas and bring about positive changes in the society.

Freedom of Speech Essay 3 (400 words)

Freedom of Speech is considered to be a basic right that every person must be entitled to. It is among the seven fundamental rights given to the citizens of India by the Indian constitution. It forms a part of the Right to Freedom that includes the freedom of speech and expression, right to life and liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of residence, right to practice any profession, freedom to form unions, associations or cooperatives, protection in regard to conviction in offences and protection against arrest in some cases.

Why is Freedom of Speech Essential?

Freedom of speech is essential for the all round growth and development of a person as well as a nation as a whole. Imposing restriction on what one speaks or hears can hamper the development of a person. It can even create discomfort and dissatisfaction that leads to stress. A nation filled with people full of discontent can never grow in the right direction.

Freedom of Speech gives way to open discussions that helps in exchange of ideas which is essential for the growth of the society. It is also essential to express one’s opinion about the political system of the country. When the government knows that it monitored and can be challenged or criticized for the steps it is taking, it acts more responsibly.

Freedom of Speech – Closely Related to Other Rights

Freedom of Speech is closely related to the other rights. It is mainly required to protect the other rights given to the citizens.Freedom of Speech is only when people have the right to express and speak freely they can raise their voice against anything that goes wrong. It enables them to take an active part in democracy rather than just being involved in the election process. Similarly, they can guard other rights such as the Right to Equality, Right to Freedom of Religion, Right against Exploitation and Right to Privacy only when they have the Freedom to Speech and Expression.

It is also closely related to the Right to Fair Trial. Freedom of Speech and Expression enables a person to put across his point freely during a trial which is extremely essential.

Freedom of speech gives the power to raise voice against any kind of injustice happening around. The governments of the countries that offer Right to Information and Opinion and Freedom of Speech and Expression must also welcome the opinions and ideas of their citizens and be receptive to change.

Freedom of Speech Essay 4 (500 words)

Freedom of Speech and Expression is one of the basic rights guaranteed to the citizens of India. It comes under the Right to Freedom which is among the seven fundamental rights included in the Indian constitution. The other rights include Right to Equality, Right to Freedom of Religion, Cultural and Educational Rights, Right to Privacy, Right against Exploitation and Right to Constitutional Remedies.

Freedom of Speech in India

The constitution of India provides Freedom of Speech to every citizen however with some restrictions. This means that the people can freely express their views about others as well as the government, political system, policies and bureaucracy. However, speech can restricted on moral grounds, security and provocation. Under the Right to Freedom in the Indian constitution, the citizens of the country have the following rights:

  • Freedom to speak and express ideas and opinions freely
  • to assemble peacefully without any arms and ammunitions
  • Freedom to form groups, unions and associations
  • to move freely in any part of the country
  • Freedom to settle in any part of the country
  • to practice any profession
  • Freedom to indulge in any kind of business or trade provided it is not unlawful.

India known as a democratic country in true sense. The people here have the right to information and can give their opinion on anything even the activities of the government. Freedom of Speech empowers the media to share all that is going on in the country as well as around the world. This makes the people more aware and also keeps them updated with the latest happenings from around the world.

Downside of Freedom of Speech

While the Freedom of Speech allows an individual to share his thoughts and ideas and contribute towards the betterment of his society and fellow citizens, there many disadvantages attached to it too. Many people misuse this freedom. They do not just express their views but also impose them on others. They instigate people and form groups to conduct unlawful activities. Media is also free to express its ideas and opinions. At times, the information shared by them creates panic amongst the general public. Certain news such as that related to the activities of different communal groups has even given rise to communal riots in the past. This disrupts the peace and harmony of the society.

Internet has augmented the Freedom of Speech and Expression. The advent of social media platforms has furthered it all the more. People these days are eager to give their views on anything and everything whether they have knowledge about the same or not. They write hateful comments without caring if they are hurting someone’s feelings or intruding in someone’s personal space. This can certainly termed as the misuse of this freedom and must stopped.

Every country must provide the Freedom of Speech and Expression to its citizens. However, it must defined clearly so that it only helps in bringing about positive changes in the individuals as well as the society and does not disrupt its normal functioning.

Freedom of Speech Essay 5 (600 words)

Freedom of Speech given to citizens of most countries to enable them to share their ideas and provide their opinion on different matters. It considered to be essential for the growth of an individual as well as the society. While most countries provide this freedom to its citizens, many refrain from it.

Many Countries Offer Freedom of Speech

Not only India many countries around the world offer Freedom of Speech and Expression to their citizens. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights incorporated in the year 1948 states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”.

South Africa, Sudan, Pakistan, Tunisia, Hong Kong, Iran, Israel, Malaysia, Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Thailand, New Zealand, Europe, Denmark, Finland and Republic of China are among some of the countries that offer Freedom of Speech and Expression to their citizens.

Now, while these countries have given the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression to their citizens however the degree to which this right rendered to the general public and media differs from country to country.

Countries that Do Not Have Freedom of Speech

There are countries that do not give the right to Freedom of Speech to their citizens to maintain absolute control. Here is a look at some of these countries:

  • North Korea :

The country does not provide Freedom of Speech and Expression to its citizens as well as the media. Thus, the government does not only hold the freedom to express ones ideas and opinions but also holds information from its citizens.

The government of Syria known for its tyranny. People here deprived of their basic human right that is the right to Freedom of Speech and Expression.

Yet another country that doesn’t provide Freedom of Speech to its citizens. The citizens of Cuba not allowed to pass any negative comment on the activities of the government or any political party. The government here has even put restriction on internet usage so that people do not get a chance to express anything via the same.

This is another country that does not offer Freedom of Speech and Expression. People cannot voice their opinions or criticize the work of the government. Criticism of the government or any political minister is a criminal offense here.

The citizens of Iran are not aware what it is like to express their opinion and share their ideas freely in the public. Nobody can express any kind of discontentment against the public laws or Islamic standards.

The government of Burma is of the opinion that the Freedom of Speech and Expression is unnecessary. The citizens asked not to express their ideas or opinions particularly if they are against any leader or political party. The media in this country run by the government.

Most people in this country do not even know as to what Freedom of Speech and Expression really is. The government of Libya known for oppressing its citizens. In the age of internet, people around the world are free to express their views on any matter but not in this country. Many people in the country have arrested for criticizing the government on the internet.

Freedom of Speech and Expression is a basic human right that must given to the citizens of each country. However it is sad to see the way the governments of certain countries do not provide even this essential human right to its citizens and oppresses them to fulfil their own selfish motives.

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Biden to focus on 'freedom' in State of the Union — a central theme of his re-election campaign

WASHINGTON — When President Joe Biden launched his campaign last April, the first word he uttered was “Freedom.” As he gives his most important speech as a candidate for re-election Thursday night, the president will return to the theme as a key pillar in making his case to the country.

Biden will do so quite starkly, once again leaning on the example of one of his iconic predecessors. As the 46th president addresses the 118th Congress, he will invoke the 32nd president’s address to the 77th Congress, according to a copy of the speech that was visible in a photo his office published on X. In 1941, Franklin Roosevelt said he was speaking at an “unprecedented moment” in American history — months before the United States would join World War II with the Great Depression still fresh in mind.

The Biden team’s focus on freedom and threats to democracy as a defining electoral issue has often invited criticism from allies, at a time when Americans’ perceptions of the economy, and of the 81-year-old president himself, are also expected to dominate the months ahead.

Follow live updates on the State of the Union address

Advisers understand the importance of Biden’s delivery in answering questions about his age, and agree on the need to help better connect the administration’s economic agenda and accomplishments to the improvements in voters’ everyday lives. 

But none of that will matter, aides counter, if America’s democracy falters, a reality the president will starkly warn is possible, and one his advisers say voters have already responded to.

“There was language in the 2020 campaign that democracy and decency were on the ballot. There were voices that thought this was academic — too remote — but now there have been two elections whose results prove that not to have been the case,” the historian Jon Meacham, an informal adviser to the president who helped him prepare his speech, said in an interview.

Roosevelt’s 1941 address became known as his “Four Freedoms” speech; he defined what he called the “four essential human freedoms” — of speech and expression, of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Biden, who has a framed painting of Roosevelt displayed prominently in the Oval Office, has already offered his own version of the four freedoms for the 21st century. In a speech that opened 2024, Biden said that freedom itself was on the ballot this year. 

“We’ll be voting on many issues: on the freedom to vote and have your vote counted, on the freedom of choice, the freedom to have a fair shot, the freedom from fear,” he said near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

Each will be woven through his speech to Congress on Thursday, according to sources familiar with the address, who emphasized that it was still subject to further revisions.

Biden’s State of the Union address Thursday will be one full of both symbolism and substance, with every policy discussed and even the delivery itself seen through the lens of November. But to the small circle of advisers crafting the address, it is quite simple.

“This is a speech about Joe Biden,” as one senior administration official put it. Biden, they said, will “frame this moment in history, and offer a path for the future.”

In Biden’s re-election announcement video, he said the question facing Americans is “whether in the years ahead we have more freedom or less freedom. More rights or fewer.” 

It’s been a consistent theme that even pre-dated the launch, though, one that Biden advisers felt was made all too clear in the events of Jan. 6 — 80 years from the day of the Roosevelt speech Biden will reference. And it was brought into a new context by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in 2022, which showed the threats to individual freedoms more broadly.

Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been traveling on a “Fight for Reproductive Freedoms” tour, made that immediate connection after the release of the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to abortion.

“The great aspiration of our nation has been to expand freedom, but the expansion of freedom clearly is not inevitable,” she said then. “It is not something that just happens — not unless we defend our most fundamental principles.”

She repeated that Sunday during remarks in Selma, Alabama, calling the right to vote “the freedom that unlocks all others.” 

In recent campaign appearances, Biden has also warned that former President Donald “Trump and his MAGA friends are determined to take away our fundamental freedoms.” And in advocating for securing funding for Ukraine, Biden has presented a choice: “Are you going to stand up for freedom, or are you going to side with terror and tyranny?  Are you going to stand with Ukraine, or are you going to stand with Putin?  Will we stand with America or — or with Trump?”

It shows what one Democratic strategist who works closely with the White House said was the great quality of freedom as a theme — its versatility. 

“It’s definitely something that all Democratic pollsters are testing more now, taking their cues from the speeches they hear" from the administration, the strategist said. “Republicans tried to run with that, but they became the party of banning books and banning LGBT clubs on school campuses, banning abortion and banning people’s rights.”

Republicans, of course, haven’t fully conceded the theme. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a possible Trump vice presidential choice, used her State of the State address to highlight what she called her “freedom works here” agenda, including the “freedom to keep and bear arms,” the “freedom to farm and ranch,” and “freedom to be secure.”

But to Biden, freedom and democracy are intertwined as unique themes in part because of the threat he believes Donald Trump poses.

“Democracy is nothing if it does not defend individual freedom against the whims and ambitions of an autocratic force. So I think an argument about freedom is the natural extension of the defense of democracy because they’re so closely entwined,” Meacham said. “Like any responsible president, President Biden has adjusted the intensity of the argument as the facts have warranted. It’s an organic argument, not a static one.”

a paragraph on freedom of speech

Mike Memoli is an NBC News correspondent. 

a paragraph on freedom of speech

Ghael Fobes is an Associate White House Producer with the NBC News White House Unit in Washington, D.C.

a paragraph on freedom of speech

Why Biden cited FDR’s ‘Four Freedoms’ speech in his State of the Union

President Biden began his State of the Union speech Thursday night by invoking another president’s address to Congress 83 years ago. “In January 1941,” Biden said, “President Franklin Roosevelt came to this chamber to speak to the nation.”

In what became known as the “Four Freedoms” speech, Roosevelt sought to rally Americans to support European democracies facing annihilation from Nazi Germany.

“Hitler was on the march,” Biden said. “War was raging in Europe. President Roosevelt’s purpose was to wake up Congress and alert the American people that this was no ordinary time. Freedom and democracy were under assault in the world.” Biden then warned that democracy is again under attack, not only in Europe with Russia’s war against Ukraine, but also from domestic opponents who he said were undermining democracy in this country in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

In 1941, Roosevelt was singularly focused on the external threat. And it was not an easy sell, especially with many isolationists committed to keeping America out of World War II.

Roosevelt had just won an unprecedented third term in office after promising, “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

But in his Jan. 6, 1941, speech to Congress, he made the case that the United States needed to get involved, at least by providing military aid to democracies like Britain that were under siege from Germany.

“Let us say to the democracies: ‘We Americans are vitally concerned in your defense of freedom,’” he said. “‘We are putting forth our energies, our resources and our organizing powers to give you the strength to regain and maintain a free world. We shall send you, in ever-increasing numbers, ships, planes, tanks, guns. This is our purpose and our pledge.’”

At that point, Germany had overrun much of Europe, and Britain was under a barrage of attacks from the Nazis. Roosevelt told Congress that America’s security had never been as threatened from outside its borders as it was then.

“The democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world – assailed either by arms, or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace,” he said. “During 16 long months, this assault has blotted out the whole pattern of democratic life in an appalling number of independent nations, great and small.”

He added, “Therefore, as your president, performing my constitutional duty to ‘give to the Congress information of the state of the Union,’ I find it, unhappily, necessary to report that the future and the safety of our country and of our democracy are overwhelmingly involved in events far beyond our borders.”

He took aim at opponents of American involvement in the war, saying, “The need of the moment is that our actions and our policy should be devoted primarily – almost exclusively – to meeting this foreign peril. For all our domestic problems are now a part of the great emergency.”

Roosevelt laid out his vision for what he called “four essential human freedoms”: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Those ideas would be enshrined in the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the war.

Roosevelt said freedom from fear “means a worldwide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.”

According to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, the first three drafts of the speech didn’t include any mention of the four freedoms.

As Samuel I. Rosenman, special counsel to Roosevelt, recounted in his book “Working With Roosevelt,” Roosevelt met with several top aides in the White House study and told them he had an idea for the speech’s closing section. “We waited as he leaned far back in his swivel chair with his gaze on the ceiling,” Rosenman wrote. “It was a long pause – so long that it began to become uncomfortable. Then he leaned forward again in his chair” and read aloud the Four Freedoms.

Newspapers, including the Washington Post praised the speech.

“The President in yesterday’s address put ardor into our struggle,” the Post wrote in an editorial, “he justified our sacrifice, by enouncing war aims committing us to the reestablishment of the ‘four essential human freedoms.’”

But the conservative Chicago Tribune mocked the speech as “not the work of a man facing a situation dispassionately.”

Not surprisingly, it didn’t go over well in Germany either.

“German Press Hurls Invective At Roosevelt,” ran the Washington Post headline on a Jan. 8 Associated Press story from Berlin. The AP quoted a German newspaper editorial that called Roosevelt’s speech “unique in American history for its untruthfulness, for its unscrupulousness, unique for its twisting of history and for the hypocritical manner in which it attempted to picture the totalitarian states as aggressors and arch-enemies of all the Americas.”

Roosevelt’s State of the Union address catalyzed congressional support for his efforts to aid Britain. Four days later, Democrats introduced his Lend-Lease bill, which authorized the U.S. to lend or lease war supplies to “any country whose defense the President deems vital to the defense of the United States.” The Lend-Lease Act passed Congress overwhelmingly, despite vehement opposition from isolationists, and helped Britain stave off the Germans until the United States entered the war later that year following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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    Freedom of speech, right, as stated in the 1st and 14th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, to express information, ideas, and opinions free of government restrictions based on content. Many cases involving freedom of speech and of the press have concerned defamation, obscenity, and prior restraint.

  4. Freedom of speech

    Liberalism portal. Politics portal. v. t. e. Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction. The right to freedom of expression has been recognised as a human right in the Universal Declaration of Human ...

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

    Even though the concept of freedom of speech on its face seems quite simple, in reality there are complex lines that can be drawn around what kinds of speech are protected and in what setting.

  6. Freedom of Speech

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

  7. First Amendment Rights: Freedom of Speech and the Press

    The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: 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…. Freedom of speech, also interpreted to include expression beyond speech, is the right for people to express, promote, and defend ...

  8. freedom of speech

    Freedom of speech is the right to speak, write, and share ideas and opinions without facing punishment from the government. The First Amendment protects this right by prohibiting Congress from making laws that would curtail freedom of speech.. Even though freedom of speech is protected from infringement by the government, the government is still free to restrict speech in certain circumstances.

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

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

  10. What is freedom of speech?

    Wrong. 'Freedom of speech is the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, by any means.'. Freedom of speech and the right to freedom of expression applies to ideas of all kinds including those that may be deeply offensive. But it comes with responsibilities and we believe it can be legitimately restricted.

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

    Free speech has been an experiment from the start—or at least that's what ... The Free Speech Century (Oxford University Press) is a collection of 16 essays by Floyd Abrams, the legendary ... in times of war and when momentous social movements are on the rise," he writes. "Freedom of speech and the press taps into the most essential ...

  12. Two Concepts of Freedom of Speech

    The Two Clashing Meanings of 'Free Speech'. Today's campus controversies reflect a battle between two distinct conceptions of the term—what the Greeks called isegoria and parrhesia. Socrates ...

  13. U.S. Constitution

    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.

  14. What does freedom of speech mean in the internet era?

    Its deliberations raise questions about regulation, free speech and what makes for a healthy and equitable online existence. In 1996, a man in South Africa locked himself into a glass cubicle and mostly limited his contact with the outside world to an internet connection for a few months .

  15. Opinion

    America Has a Free Speech Problem. March 18, 2022. Pablo Delcan. 2902. By The Editorial Board. The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research ...

  16. 15.4 Censorship and Freedom of Speech

    To fully understand the issues of censorship and freedom of speech and how they apply to modern media, we must first explore the terms themselves. Censorship is defined as suppressing or removing anything deemed objectionable. A common, everyday example can be found on the radio or television, where potentially offensive words are "bleeped" out.

  17. The Significance of Freedom of Speech

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

  18. 123 Freedom of Speech Topics & Essay Examples

    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. 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.

  19. Freedom of Speech Essay Sample [A+ 300 Words Paper]

    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.

  20. Freedom of Speech Essay for Students in English

    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

  21. Human Nature and the Freedom of Speech in Different Countries

    Freedom of speech is an element that is occasionally protected by laws of various countries. In the United States, for example, freedom of speech is strictly protected by the country's first amendment. According to the first amendment, freedom of speech is protected from manipulation by selfish individuals such as politicians who could be in ...

  22. Freedom Essay for Students and Children

    Q.1 What is the true meaning of freedom? A.1 Freedom truly means giving equal opportunity to everyone for liberty and pursuit of happiness. Q.2 What is freedom of expression means? A.2 Freedom of expression means the freedom to express one's own ideas and opinions through the medium of writing, speech, and other forms of communication without ...

  23. Essay on Freedom of Speech for Children and Students

    The concept of freedom of speech originated long back. England's Bill of Rights 1689 adopted freedom of speech as a constitutional right and it is still in effect. The French revolution in 1789 adopted the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This further affirmed the Freedom of Speech as an undeniable right.

  24. In Social Media Case, Supreme Court Must Stand for Free Speech

    The Supreme Court has now heard oral argument in two of the most important free-speech and social media cases it has ever considered. At issue is whether Texas and Florida may pass laws regulating ...

  25. Biden to focus on 'freedom' in State of the Union

    Roosevelt's 1941 address became known as his "Four Freedoms" speech; he defined what he called the "four essential human freedoms" — of speech and expression, of worship, freedom from ...

  26. Why Biden cited FDR's 'Four Freedoms' speech in his State of the Union

    President Biden began his State of the Union speech Thursday night by invoking another president's address to Congress 83 years ago. In what became known as the "Four Freedoms" speech ...