Reasons why freedom of speech is important

A good friend of mine mailed me clippings about free speech controversies on college campuses, and asked me whether I think freedom of speech is an absolute right.

Nothing is absolute.   Even fundamental freedoms are subject to reasonable and limited restrictions that are consistent with their purpose.   These includes laws about (1) libel and slander, (2) incitement to riot, (3) threats and intimidation, (4) harassment, (5) public obscenity, (6) public nuisances and probably other things I didn’t think of.

But I can’t think of a situation in which I would forbid somebody to peaceably express their opinion based on the nature of that opinion.

And if you could make me admit to an exception, I would define that exception as narrowly as possible and not use it as a precedent.

What is the point of freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is an important individual right.   Being able to speak your mind without fear is necessary for human flourishing.   Nobody can be happy if they have to conceal their opinions out of fear.

Freedom of speech is a social contract.   It provides a way in which people of radically different opinions can live together without violence.    I may think you not only wrong but wicked, and you may think the same of me.   But it is better for both of us, and for those around us, if we agree to settle our differences with facts and ideas, not guns and clubs.

Freedom of speech is necessary for self-government.   Citizens of a free country have a right to hear all sides of public questions.   Your choice is not completely free if someone has the power to limit what facts and opinions you are allowed to hear.

Freedom of speech is most valuable to the least powerful.   The rich and powerful in any framework will be able to make their views known.   Reformers, dissidents and the poor and marginalized are the ones most in need of the right of free speech, and that is true even if they have less of it than the powerful.

And, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, free speech is more than just a good idea – it’s the law.

Consider some justifications offered for suppressing free speech.

Fake news

The argument is that people are harmed by dissemination of fake news—information that is either unverified or known to be false.  A related, but different argument, is that the Russian government is using the news media to sow confusion and division.   One proposed solution is for Google, Facebook and other social media companies to censor news that they distribute.

Misinformation is a serious problem, for which I lack a good overall answer.   Russian propaganda, in my opinion, is not a serious problem.   I don’t think censorship is a good answer to either.

The scope of Google and Facebook is so great that any news filter for Google page rankings or Facebook sharing would have to be done by an algorithm.   No algorithm could distinguish truth from falsehood, and, in any case, those who intentionally spread fake news would learn to game the algorithm.

What a “fake news” algorithm would do in practice would be to screen out dissident voices, both on the so-called right and so-called left  There is some evidence this is already happening.   It would not screen out fake news originating in the Pentagon or the CIA; it would likely screen out anti-war voices.

I have some sympathy for Google and Facebook management.   Google has to have some algorithm for ranking its page views, and Facebook is not wrong to try to limit the spread of pornography.   All I’m sure of is that I don’t want them to use their powers to block access to news and views the government considers unacceptable.

Intolerance of the intolerant

The argument is that people who do not recognize the right of free speech are not entitled to free speech themselves.  The problem with this is, who gets the power to decide who is intolerant?

The philosopher Karl Popper said that free societies have the right to protect themselves by suppressing enemies of freedom.   This was during the Stalin era, and the enemies he had in mind were the Communists, who, because of their beliefs, were regarded as inherently intolerant.   In an earlier era, this reasoning was applied to Roman Catholics; in our era, to Muslims.

Later the radical Marxist philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, identified militarists, capitalists and anti-Communists as the enemies of freedom who ought to be suppressed.

The best way to uphold tolerance is to uphold equal rights for all, not to define new categories of people to persecute.

Hate speech

The argument is that certain kinds of speech should not be allowed because they are expressions of hate, not expressions of opinion.

Very often hate speech is expressed in the form on harassment, persecution and intimidation, which nobody should be subjected to.  I think universities and other institutions can and should establish rules of civility.   There is a very serious problem with use of the Internet to target people, especially feminist women, with obscenities, insults and threats.   All this has to do with behavior, not with the content of opinion.

The problem is that anybody with strong opinions, except maybe Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama, can be accused of hate speech, including representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union.

I don’t agree with the thesis of The Bell Curve, a book about heredity and group differences in I.Q. published in 1994, but that is not grounds from preventing its co-author, Charles Murray, from giving a public speech on a college campus.   If his ideas are wrong, refute them.   Why give the impression that his ideas are so powerful you’re afraid to let people hear them?

Another argument is that speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos only intend to insult and provoke, and not to engage in serious intellectual discussion.   I think that’s true.   But if he is merely a provocateur, why allow yourself to be provoked?  Why give him what he wants?

Upholding patriotic rituals

The argument is that Americans who break patriotic rituals, such as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, should be punished because they’re insulting their country and the troops who fought for it.

One example is Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who knelt instead of standing for the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, the national anthem, as a way of calling attention to the number of black people who had been killed by American police.

His gesture has not been successful.   He only succeeded in calling attention to himself, not the issue he was trying to raise.

Kneeling is usually considering a gesture of humility and respect, but not everybody thinks so.  As I see it, patriotic rituals are meaningful only to the extent that they are voluntary.   Making patriotic rituals compulsory, or punishing people who deviate from them, makes them meaningless.

I’m biased in favor of Kaepernick because I agree with his protest.   But I would uphold his moral right to protest just as strongly if he were protesting, for example, abortion or gay marriage.

Colin Kaepernick’s situation raises another issue—one too big and too complicated for me to do anything more than mention in this particular post.  That is the right of employers to punish employees for their opinions, regardless of relevance to their work.


Freedom of speech begins, but does not end, with the requirement that “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”   Corporate and bureaucratic power, public opinion and mob or individual violence can threaten freedom of speech, and without necessarily giving a rationale, such as those I’ve mentioned above.

Nor does the existence of freedom of speech guarantee that truth and justice will prevail.   All it does is give truth and justice a fighting chance.


The ACLU Should Keep Representing Deplorables by Conor Friedersdorf for The Atlantic.

Antifa in Theory and Practice by Diana Johnstone for Counterpunch.


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5 Responses to “Reasons why freedom of speech is important”

  1. Fred Says:

    Too many people on both the right and the left believe in free speech for me but not for thee. It is the sin of intensely felt ideology.


  2. Jeffrey Liakos Says:

    Liberals detest freedom of speech.


  3. Henry Lewis Says:

    The last two lines summarize your points so well Phil!


  4. Steven Greffenius Says:

    Good article. I’d add that people who detest freedom of speech are, by their own definition, not liberal. They may, however, pretend to be.


  5. sandomina Says:

    Very nicely brought out some facts about free speech, what I always thought I understood, but got it crystal clear today. However, the fake news is a real danger(though it is not a new phenomenon). Today it spreads like wildfire at lightning speed and can cause extreme damage if it incites people.


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