Freedom of Expression Essay

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  • The Key Concepts

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Freedom of expression refers to the right to express one’s opinions or thoughts freely by utilizing any of the different modes of communication available. The ideas aired should, however, not cause any intentional harm to other personality or status through false or ambiguous statements. Communication of ideas can be achieved through speech, writing or art. Freedom of expression, unlike freedom of thought, may be regulated by the appropriate authorities in any society in order to avoid controversies between different individuals.

The extent to which this limitation or censorship is done varies from nation to nation and is dependent on the government of the day. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, every individual has the right to search for information, access and impart variety of ideas irrespective of the frontiers.

Freedom of Expression: The Key Concepts

The subject of freedom of expression has always been controversial, especially when considering political aspects. A state is perceived to have the mandate to impede people from convening groups in which they air their opinions if those views can result in direct harm to other people.

However, the interference would only be an exception if doing so results in more beneficial outcomes than standing aside. For one to be in a position to gauge the eventuality of a gain or a loss, then there should be absolute freedom of expression on all matters irrespective of the nature of the sentiments made.

Arguments for absolute freedom of expression can be a made by evaluating the purpose for which the ideas are expressed and the manner in which we evaluate what is true or false. According to Mill (Eisenach, 2004), the right to express one’s opinions offers humanity a rare chance to switch over an error for the truth if the idea expressed happens to be true.

In case the opinion happens to be wrong, mankind stands a chance of getting a clearer picture of the known truth through collusion with a mistake. Therefore, freedom of expression acts in the best interests of mankind as it endeavors to progress and its limitation deprives people of the prospects of growth.

Whether we let expression of an opinion to be limited or censored, whereas it could be true, then we present ourselves as beyond reproach. We consider all that we know to be the truth and therefore dispel all opinions that question this truth. It is possible for people or authorities to be in fault. For instance, what we consider to be morally right or wrong may not be so.

The lines that define moral rights and wrongs were set by people who could possibly have mistaken. In order to draw the limit, one must differentiate between sureness and the truth. Our certainty that a particular idea is false does not in any way excuse its expression. Suppressing such an idea would not only justify our confidence of the opinion being wrong, but also proves that we are flawless.

If limitation of people’s freedom of expression in matters such as racism is based on certainty that mankind does not stand to lose any benefit, then this sureness should be founded in the freedom itself. We can only consider ourselves to be certain when there have been no opinions raised to question the truths we hold. Therefore, in order to boost our certainty, we have to leave room for the opposing beliefs.

There are governments that censor the expression of certain ideas not because they are false, but because they are considered to be hazardous to the society. Mill argues that in such a situation, the hazard in the expressed opinions is questionable. The only way to ascertain that the opinion is in fact dangerous is not to suppress its expression but to allow its free discussion.

Secondly, if the opinion that is being limited is true, then the alternative view held by the government must be false. Experience has shown that all beliefs that are false are never constructive in the long run. Therefore, the government that prefers to hold a false conviction in place of a hazardous truth does not act in the best interests of its people.

In many instances, the silenced view may be a mistake. However, most of these mistakes do carry with them a scrap of truth. On the other hand, the existing view on each of the different topics often does not contain the entire truth. By listening to the opinions of others on the matter, an opportunity to learn the rest of the uncovered truths presents itself.

For instance in politics, we could have two political parties with different agendas. One wants to institute reforms while another desires to ensure stability. People may not be in a position to discern what should be retained or altered, but ensuring the parties at opposing ends ensures each party checks on the performance of the other. In the long run, we strike for a beneficial balance between their supposed agendas (Bhargava, 2008).

Moreover, if the opinion being expressed is entirely true, it may not be considered so with certainty. For confidence to feature, these views must be contested against other rational opinions of others in order to single out the supporting arguments. It is expected that those who believe in their opinions will place strong arguments in their favor (Matravers, 2001).

If an authority believes in the rationality of its ideas, then it should leave room for the expression of opposing ideas. For instance, if any reigning political party has faith in the views it has concerning the development of the country’s economy, it should not be wary of an opposition party with contradicting views. After all what they stand for has factual backing (O’Rourke, 2001).

Lastly, the battle for supremacy between different opinions opens up a more comprehensive understanding of our beliefs. We begin to comprehend what is required of us and are, thus, in a position to act on them. Human beliefs do not exhibit any motivation and the debates that arise are what add fuel to the fire.

Holding beliefs with a conservative mindset only serves to hinder our acceptance of the possible alternatives (Jones, 2001). Therefore, opposition exhibited in the freedom of speech opens up a lee way for open-mindedness besides posing a challenge to hypocrisy and logical sluggishness.

The absence of restrictions on people’s freedom of oppression allows for the exchange of error for truth or the clarification of the existing truth. It also reinforces our certainty in the opinions we consider true besides increasing our open-mindedness and thoughtfulness. For governments, it ensures those entrusted with the leadership of the country have reasonable opinions that work for the common good of the country’s citizens.

Free discussion and analysis of different ideas will, thus, result in the prosperity of mankind rather than the detrimental effects it is assumed to bring.

Freedom of Expression FAQ

  • What Is Freedom of Expression? Freedom of expression is the ability of individual people and groups to express their thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and ideas without any restrictions or censorship from the government. This freedom is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
  • How Does Freedom of Expression Protect Individual Liberty? The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom of expression to all citizens. This means that the US Congress does not have the right to restrict the media or people from speaking freely. People also have the right to peaceful assemblies and petitions to the government.
  • Why Is Freedom of Expression Important for Democracy? Freedom of expression is an essential human right. It guarantees the free exchange of information, opinions, and ideas in the public space, allowing people to independently form their own views on all the essential issues.

Bhargava, H. (2008). Political Theory: An Introduction . Delhi: Pearson Education.

Eisenach, E. (2004). Mill and Moral Character . New York: Penn State Press.

Jones, T. (2001). Modern Political Thinkers and Ideas: An Historical Introduction . New York: Routledge.

Matravers, D. (2001) Reading Political Philosophy: Machiavelli to Mill . New York: Routledge.

O’Rourke, K. (2001). John Stuart Mill and Freedom of Expression: The Genesis of a Theory . Connecticut: Taylor & Francis.

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Freedom of Expression


Freedom of speech, of the press, of association, of assembly and petition — this set of guarantees, protected by the First Amendment, comprises what we refer to as freedom of expression. The Supreme Court has written that this freedom is “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom.” Without it, other fundamental rights, like the right to vote, would wither and die.

But in spite of its “preferred position” in our constitutional hierarchy, the nation’s commitment to freedom of expression has been tested over and over again. Especially during times of national stress, like war abroad or social upheaval at home, people exercising their First Amendment rights have been censored, fined, even jailed. Those with unpopular political ideas have always borne the brunt of government repression. It was during WWI — hardly ancient history — that a person could be jailed just for giving out anti-war leaflets. Out of those early cases, modern First Amendment law evolved. Many struggles and many cases later, ours is the most speech-protective country in the world.

The path to freedom was long and arduous. It took nearly 200 years to establish firm constitutional limits on the government’s power to punish “seditious” and “subversive” speech. Many people suffered along the way, such as labor leader Eugene V. Debs, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison under the Espionage Act just for telling a rally of peaceful workers to realize they were “fit for something better than slavery and cannon fodder.” Or Sidney Street, jailed in 1969 for burning an American flag on a Harlem street corner to protest the shooting of civil rights figure James Meredith. (see box)


Early Americans enjoyed great freedom compared to citizens of other nations. Nevertheless, once in power, even the Constitution’s framers were guilty of overstepping the First Amendment they had so recently adopted. In 1798, during the French-Indian War, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Act, which made it a crime for anyone to publish “any false, scandalous and malicious writing” against the government. It was used by the then-dominant Federalist Party to prosecute prominent Republican newspaper editors during the late 18th century.

Throughout the 19th century, sedition, criminal anarchy and criminal conspiracy laws were used to suppress the speech of abolitionists, religious minorities, suffragists, labor organizers, and pacifists. In Virginia prior to the Civil War, for example, anyone who “by speaking or writing maintains that owners have no right of property in slaves” was subject to a one-year prison sentence.

The early 20th century was not much better. In 1912, feminist Margaret Sanger was arrested for giving a lecture on birth control. Trade union meetings were banned and courts routinely granted injunctions prohibiting strikes and other labor protests. Violators were sentenced to prison. Peaceful protesters opposing U. S. entry into World War I were jailed for expressing their opinions. In the early 1920s, many states outlawed the display of red or black flags, symbols of communism and anarchism. In 1923, author Upton Sinclair was arrested for trying to read the text of the First Amendment at a union rally. Many people were arrested merely for membership in groups regarded as “radical” by the government. It was in response to the excesses of this period that the ACLU was founded in 1920.

Free speech rights still need constant, vigilant protection. New questions arise and old ones return. Should flag burning be a crime? What about government or private censorship of works of art that touch on sensitive issues like religion or sexuality? Should the Internet be subject to any form of government control? What about punishing college students who espouse racist or sexist opinions? In answering these questions, the history and the core values of the First Amendment should be our guide.


During our nation’s early era, the courts were almost universally hostile to political minorities’ First Amendment rights; free speech issues did not even reach the Supreme Court until 1919 when, in Schenck v. U.S., the Court unanimously upheld the conviction of a Socialist Party member for mailing anti-anti-war leaflets to draft-age men. A turning point occurred a few months later in Abrams v. U.S. Although the defendant’s conviction under the Espionage Act for distributing anti-war leaflets was upheld, two dissenting opinions formed the cornerstone of our modern First Amendment law. Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis D. Brandeis argued speech could only be punished if it presented “a clear and present danger” of imminent harm. Mere political advocacy, they said, was protected by the First Amendment. Eventually, these justices were able to convince a majority of the Court to adopt the “clear and present danger test.”

From then on, the right to freedom of expression grew more secure — until the 1950s and McCarthyism. The Supreme Court fell prey to the witchhunt mentality of that period, seriously weakening the “clear and present danger” test by holding that speakers could be punished if they advocated overthrowing the government — even if the danger of such an occurrence were both slight and remote. As a result, many political activists were prosecuted and jailed simply for advocating communist revolution. Loyalty oath requirements for government employees were upheld; thousands of Americans lost their jobs on the basis of flimsy evidence supplied by secret witnesses.

Finally, in 1969, in Brandenberg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court struck down the conviction of a Ku Klux Klan member, and established a new standard: Speech can be suppressed only if it is intended, and likely to produce, “imminent lawless action.” Otherwise, even speech that advocates violence is protected. The Brandenberg standard prevails today.


First Amendment protection is not limited to “pure speech” — books, newspapers, leaflets, and rallies. It also protects “symbolic speech” — nonverbal expression whose purpose is to communicate ideas. In its 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, the Court recognized the right of public school students to wear black armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. In 1989 ( Texas v. Johnson) and again in 1990 ( U.S. v. Eichman), the Court struck down government bans on “flag desecration.” Other examples of protected symbolic speech include works of art, T-shirt slogans, political buttons, music lyrics and theatrical performances.

Government can limit some protected speech by imposing “time, place and manner” restrictions. This is most commonly done by requiring permits for meetings, rallies and demonstrations. But a permit cannot be unreasonably withheld, nor can it be denied based on content of the speech. That would be what is called viewpoint discrimination — and that is unconstitutional.

When a protest crosses the line from speech to action, the government can intervene more aggressively. Political protesters have the right to picket, to distribute literature, to chant and to engage passersby in debate. But they do not have the right to block building entrances or to physically harass people.


The ACLU has often been at the center of controversy for defending the free speech rights of groups that spew hate, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis. But if only popular ideas were protected, we wouldn’t need a First Amendment. History teaches that the first target of government repression is never the last. If we do not come to the defense of the free speech rights of the most unpopular among us, even if their views are antithetical to the very freedom the First Amendment stands for, then no one’s liberty will be secure. In that sense, all First Amendment rights are “indivisible.”

Censoring so-called hate speech also runs counter to the long-term interests of the most frequent victims of hate: racial, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities. We should not give the government the power to decide which opinions are hateful, for history has taught us that government is more apt to use this power to prosecute minorities than to protect them. As one federal judge has put it, tolerating hateful speech is “the best protection we have against any Nazi-type regime in this country.”

At the same time, freedom of speech does not prevent punishing conduct that intimidates, harasses, or threatens another person, even if words are used. Threatening phone calls, for example, are not constitutionally protected.


The Supreme Court has recognized the government’s interest in keeping some information secret, such as wartime troop deployments. But the Court has never actually upheld an injunction against speech on national security grounds. Two lessons can be learned from this historical fact. First, the amount of speech that can be curtailed in the interest of national security is very limited. And second, the government has historically overused the concept of “national security” to shield itself from criticism, and to discourage public discussion of controversial policies or decisions.

In 1971, the publication of the “Pentagon Papers” by the New York Times brought the conflicting claims of free speech and national security to a head. The Pentagon Papers, a voluminous secret history and analysis of the country’s involvement in Vietnam, was leaked to the press. When the Times ignored the government’s demand that it cease publication, the stage was set for a Supreme Court decision. In the landmark U.S. v. New York Times case, the Court ruled that the government could not, through “prior restraint,” block publication of any material unless it could prove that it would “surely” result in “direct, immediate, and irreparable” harm to the nation. This the government failed to prove, and the public was given access to vital information about an issue of enormous importance.

The public’s First Amendment “right to know” is essential to its ability to fully participate in democratic decision-making. As the Pentagon Papers case demonstrates, the government’s claims of “national security” must always be closely scrutinized to make sure they are valid.


The Supreme Court has recognized several limited exceptions to First Amendment protection.

  • In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), the Court held that so-called “fighting words … which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace,” are not protected. This decision was based on the fact that fighting words are of “slight social value as a step to truth.”
  • In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the Court held that defamatory falsehoods about public officials can be punished — only if the offended official can prove the falsehoods were published with “actual malice,” i.e.: “knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Other kinds of “libelous statements” are also punishable.
  • Legally “obscene” material has historically been excluded from First Amendment protection. Unfortunately, the relatively narrow obscenity exception, described below, has been abused by government authorities and private pressure groups. Sexual expression in art and entertainment is, and has historically been, the most frequent target of censorship crusades, from James Joyce’s classic Ulysses to the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe.

In the 1973 Miller v. California decision, the Court established three conditions that must be present if a work is to be deemed “legally obscene.” It must 1) appeal to the average person’s prurient (shameful, morbid) interest in sex; 2) depict sexual conduct in a “patently offensive way” as defined by community standards; and 3) taken as a whole, lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. Attempts to apply the “Miller test” have demonstrated the impossibility of formulating a precise definition of obscenity. Justice Potter Stewart once delivered a famous one-liner on the subject: “I know it when I see it.” But the fact is, the obscenity exception to the First Amendment is highly subjective and practically invites government abuse.


It’s the foundation of self-fulfillment. The right to express one’s thoughts and to communicate freely with others affirms the dignity and worth of each and every member of society, and allows each individual to realize his or her full human potential. Thus, freedom of expression is an end in itself — and as such, deserves society’s greatest protection.

It’s vital to the attainment and advancement of knowledge, and the search for the truth. The eminent 19th-century writer and civil libertarian, John Stuart Mill, contended that enlightened judgment is possible only if one considers all facts and ideas, from whatever source, and tests one’s own conclusions against opposing views. Therefore, all points of view — even those that are “bad” or socially harmful — should be represented in society’s “marketplace of ideas.”

It’s necessary to our system of self-government and gives the American people a “checking function” against government excess and corruption. If the American people are to be the masters of their fate and of their elected government, they must be well-informed and have access to all information, ideas and points of view. Mass ignorance is a breeding ground for oppression and tyranny.


The American Civil Liberties Union has been involved in virtually all of the landmark First Amendment cases to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and remains absolutely committed to the preservation of each and every individual’s freedom of expression. During the 1980s, we defended the right of artists and entertainers to perform and produce works of art free of government and private censorship. During the 1990s, the organization fought to protect free speech in cyberspace when state and federal government attempted to impose content-based regulations on the Internet. In addition, the ACLU offers several books on the subject of freedom of expression:

RESOURCES: Ira Glasser, Visions of Liberty, Arcade, 1991. J. Gora, D. Goldberger, G. Stern, M. Halperin, The Right to Protest: The Basic ACLU Guide to Free Expression, SIU Press, 1991. Franklin Haiman, “Speech Acts” and the First Amendment 1993, SIU Press, 1993. Nadine Strossen, Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women’s Rights, Anchor Press, 1995.

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free speech illustration: megaphone drowning out other voices

The myth of the free speech crisis

How overblown fears of censorship have normalised hate speech and silenced minorities. By Nesrine Malik

W hen I started writing a column in the Guardian, I would engage with the commenters who made valid points and urge those whose response was getting lost in rage to re-read the piece and return. Comments were open for 72 hours. Coming up for air at the end of a thread felt like mooring a ship after a few days on choppy waters, like an achievement, something that I and the readers had gone through together. We had discussed sensitive, complicated ideas about politics, race, gender and sexuality and, at the end, via a rolling conversation, we had got somewhere.

In the decade since, the tenor of those comments became so personalised and abusive that the ship often drowned before making it to shore – the moderators would simply shut the thread down. When it first started happening, I took it as a personal failure – perhaps I had not struck the right tone or not sufficiently hedged all my points, provoking readers into thinking I was being dishonest or incendiary. In time, it dawned on me that my writing was the same. It was the commenters who had changed. It was becoming harder to discuss almost anything without a virtual snarl in response. And it was becoming harder to do so if one were not white or male.

As a result, the Guardian overhauled its policy and decided that it would not open comment threads on pieces that were certain to derail. The moderators had a duty of care to the writers, some of whom struggled with the abuse, and a duty of care to new writers who might succumb to a chilling effect if they knew that to embark on a journalism career nowadays comes inevitably with no protection from online thuggery. Alongside these moral concerns there were also practical, commercial ones. There were simply not enough resources to manage all the open threads at the same time with the increased level of attention that was now required.

In the past 10 years, many platforms in the press and social media have had to grapple with the challenges of managing users with increasingly sharp and offensive tones, while maintaining enough space for expression, feedback and interaction. Speech has never been more free or less intermediated. Anyone with internet access can create a profile and write, tweet, blog or comment, with little vetting and no hurdle of technological skill. But the targets of this growth in the means of expression have been primarily women, minorities and LGBTQ+ people.

A 2017 Pew Research Center survey revealed that a “wide cross-section” of Americans experience online abuse, but that the majority was directed towards minorities, with a quarter of black Americans saying they have been attacked online due to race or ethnicity. Ten per cent of Hispanics and 3% of whites reported the same. The picture is not much different in the UK. A 2017 Amnesty report analysed tweets sent to 177 female British MPs. The 20 of them who were from a black and ethnic minority background received almost half the total number of abusive tweets.

The vast majority of this abuse goes unpunished. And yet it is somehow conventional wisdom that free speech is under assault, that university campuses have succumbed to an epidemic of no-platforming, that social media mobs are ready to raise their pitchforks at the most innocent slip of the tongue or joke, and that Enlightenment values that protected the right to free expression and individual liberty are under threat. The cause of this, it is claimed, is a liberal totalitarianism that is attributable (somehow) simultaneously to intolerance and thin skin. The impulse is allegedly at once both fascist in its brutal inclinations to silence the individual, and protective of the weak, easily wounded and coddled.

This is the myth of the free speech crisis. It is an extension of the political-correctness myth , but is a recent mutation more specifically linked to efforts or impulses to normalise hate speech or shut down legitimate responses to it. The purpose of the myth is not to secure freedom of speech – that is, the right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint or legal penalty. The purpose is to secure the licence to speak with impunity; not freedom of expression, but rather freedom from the consequences of that expression.

The myth has two components: the first is that all speech should be free; the second is that freedom of speech means freedom from objection.

The first part of the myth is one of the more challenging to push back against, because instinctively it feels wrong to do so. It seems a worthy cause to demand more political correctness, politeness and good manners in language convention as a bulwark against society’s drift into marginalising groups with less capital, or to argue for a fuller definition of female emancipation. These are good things, even if you disagree with how they are to be achieved. But to ask that we have less freedom of speech – to be unbothered when people with views you disagree with are silenced or banned – smacks of illiberalism. It just doesn’t sit well. And it’s hard to argue for less freedom in a society in which you live, because surely limiting rights of expression will catch up with you at some point. Will it not be you one day, on the wrong side of free speech?

There is a kernel of something that makes all myths stick – something that speaks to a sense of justice, liberty, due process and openness and allows those myths to be cynically manipulated to appeal to the good and well-intentioned. But challenging the myth of a free speech crisis does not mean enabling the state to police and censor even further. Instead, it is arguing that there is no crisis. If anything, speech has never been more free and unregulated. The purpose of the free-speech-crisis myth is to guilt people into giving up their right of response to attacks, and to destigmatise racism and prejudice. It aims to blackmail good people into ceding space to bad ideas, even though they have a legitimate right to refuse. And it is a myth that demands, in turn, its own silencing and undermining of individual freedom. To accept the free-speech-crisis myth is to give up your own right to turn off the comments.

A t the same time that new platforms were proliferating on the internet, a rightwing counter-push was also taking place online. It claimed that all speech must be allowed without consequence or moderation, and that liberals were assaulting the premise of free speech. I began to notice it around the late 2000s, alongside the fashionable atheism that sprang up after the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion . These new atheists were the first users I spotted using argumentative technicalities (eg “Islam is not a race”) to hide rank prejudice and Islamophobia. If the Guardian published a column of mine but did not open the comment thread, readers would find me on social media and cry censorship, then unleash their invective there instead.

As platforms multiplied, there were more and more ways for me to receive feedback from readers – I could be sworn at and told to go back to where I came from via at least three mediums. Or I could just read about how I should go back to where I came from in the pages of print publications, or on any number of websites. The comment thread seemed redundant. The whole internet was now a comment thread. As a result, mainstream media establishments began to struggle with this glut of opinion, failing to curate the public discussion by giving into false equivalence. Now every opinion must have a counter-opinion.

I began to see it in my own media engagements. I would be called upon by more neutral outlets, such as the BBC, to discuss increasingly more absurd arguments with other journalists or political activists with extreme views. Conversations around race, immigration, Islam and climate change became increasingly binary and polarised even when there were no binaries to be contemplated. Climate change deniers were allowed to broadcast falsehoods about a reversal in climate change. Racial minorities were called upon to counter thinly veiled racist or xenophobic views. I found myself, along with other journalists, regularly ambushed. I appeared on BBC’s Newsnight to discuss an incident in which a far-right racist had mounted a mosque pavement with his car and killed one of the congregation, and I tried to make the point that there was insufficient focus on a growing far-right terror threat. The presenter then asked me: “Have you had abuse? Give us an example.” This became a frequent line of inquiry – the personalisation and provocation of personal debate – when what was needed was analysis.

It became common for me and like-minded colleagues to ask – when invited on to TV or radio to discuss topics such as immigration or Islamophobia – who was appearing on the other side. One British Asian writer was invited on to the BBC to discuss populist rage. When he learned that he would be debating Melanie Phillips – a woman who has described immigrants as “convulsing Europe” and “refusing to assimilate” – he refused to take part, because he did not believe the topic warranted such a polarised set-up. The editor said: “This will be good for your book. Surely you want to sell more copies?” The writer replied that if he never sold another book in his life as a result of refusing to debate with Melanie Phillips, he could live with that. This was now the discourse: presenting bigotry and then the defence of bigotry as a “debate” from which everyone can benefit, like a boxing match where even the loser is paid, along with the promoters, coaches and everyone else behind arranging the fight. The writer Reni Eddo-Lodge has called it “performing rage”.

Views previously consigned to the political fringes made their way into the mainstream via social and traditional media organisations that previously would never have contemplated their airing. The expansion of media outlets meant that it was not only marginalised voices that secured access to the public, but also those with more extreme views.

This inevitably expanded what was considered acceptable speech. The Overton window – the range of ideas deemed to be acceptable by the public – shifted as more views made their way from the peripheries to the centre of the conversation. Any objection to the airing of those views would be considered an attempt to curtail freedom of speech. Whenever I attempted to push back in my writing against what amounted to incitement against racial or religious minorities, my opponents fixated on the free speech argument, rather than the harmful ramifications of hate speech.

I n early 2018, four extreme-right figures were turned away at the UK border. Their presence was deemed “not conducive to the public good”. When I wrote in defence of the Home Office’s position, my email and social media were flooded with abuse for days. Rightwing media blogs and some mainstream publications published pieces saying my position was an illiberal misunderstanding of free speech. No one discussed the people who were banned, their neo-Nazi views, or the risk of hate speech or even violence had they been let in.

What has increased is not intolerance of speech; there is simply more speech. And because that new influx was from the extremes, there is also more objectionable speech – and in turn more objection to it. This is what free-speech-crisis myth believers are picking up – a pushback against the increase in intolerance or bigotry. But they are misreading it as a change in free speech attitudes. This increase in objectionable speech came with a sense of entitlement – a demand that it be heard and not challenged, and the freedom of speech figleaf became a convenient tool. Not only do free speech warriors demand all opinions be heard on all platforms they choose, from college campuses to Twitter, but they also demand that there be no objection or reaction. It became farcical and extremely psychologically taxing for anyone who could see the dangers of hate speech, and how a sharpening tone on immigration could be used to make the lives of immigrants and minorities harder.

When Boris Johnson compared women who wear the burqa to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, it led to a spike in racist incidents against women who wear the niqab, according to the organisation Tell Mama, a national project which records and measures anti-Muslim incidents in the UK. Pointing this out and making the link between mockery of minorities and racist provocation against them was, according to Johnson’s supporters, assailing his freedom of speech. The British journalist Isabel Oakeshott tweeted that if he were disciplined by his party for “perfectly reasonable exercise of free speech, something has gone terribly wrong with the party leadership”, and that it was “deplorable to see [the Tory leadership] pandering to the whinings of the professionally offended in this craven way”.

Free speech had seemingly come to mean that no one had any right to object to what anyone ever said – which not only meant that no one should object to Johnson’s comments but, in turn, that no one should object to their objection. Free speech logic, rather than the pursuit of a lofty Enlightenment value, had become a race to the bottom, where the alternative to being “professionally offended” is never to be offended at all. This logic today demands silence from those who are defending themselves from abuse or hate speech. It is, according to the director of the Institute of Race Relations, “ the privileging of freedom of speech over freedom to life ”.

Our alleged free speech crisis was never really about free speech. The backdrop to the myth is rising anti-immigration sentiment and Islamophobia. Free-speech-crisis advocates always seem to have an agenda. They overwhelmingly wanted to exercise their freedom of speech in order to agitate against minorities, women, immigrants and Muslims.

But they dress these base impulses up in the language of concern or anti-establishment conspiracism. Similar to the triggers of political-correctness hysteria, there is a direct correlation between the rise in free speech panic and the rise in far-right or hard-right political energy, as evidenced by anti-immigration rightwing electoral successes in the US, the UK and across continental Europe. As the space for these views expanded, so the concept of free speech became frayed and tattered. It began to become muddled by false equivalence, caught between fact and opinion, between action and reaction. The discourse became mired in a misunderstanding of free speech as absolute.

Donald Trump signs an executive order requiring US colleges and universities to ‘support free speech’.

As a value in its purest form, freedom of speech serves two purposes: protection from state persecution, when challenging the authority of power or orthodoxy; and the protection of fellow citizens from the damaging consequences of absolute speech (ie completely legally unregulated speech) such as slander. According to Francis Canavan in Freedom of Expression: Purpose As Limit – his analysis of perhaps the most permissive free speech law of all, the first amendment of the US constitution – free speech must have a rational end, which is to facilitate communication between citizens. Where it does not serve that end, it is limited. Like all freedoms, it ends when it infringes upon the freedoms of others. He writes that the US supreme court itself “has never accepted an absolutist interpretation of freedom of speech. It has not protected, for example, libel, slander, perjury, false advertising, obscenity and profanity, solicitation of a crime, or ‘fighting’ words. The reason for their exclusion from first-amendment protection is that they have minimal or no values as ideas, communication of information, appeal to reason, step towards truth etc; in short, no value in regard to the ends of the amendment.”

Those who believe in the free-speech-crisis myth fail to make the distinction between “fighting” words and speech that facilitates communication; between free speech and absolute speech. Using this litmus test, the first hint that the free speech crisis is actually an absolute speech crisis is the issues it focuses on. On university campuses, it is overwhelmingly race and gender. On social media, the free speech axe is wielded by trolls, Islamophobes and misogynists, leading to an abuse epidemic that platforms have failed to curb.

This free speech crisis movement has managed to stigmatise reasonable protest, which has existed for years without being branded as “silencing”. This is, in itself, an assault on free expression.

What is considered speech worthy of protection is broadly subjective and depends on the consensual limits a society has drawn. Western societies like to think of their version of freedom of speech as exceptionally pristine, but it is also tainted (or tempered, depending on where you’re coming from) by convention.

T here is only one way to register objection of abhorrent views, which is to take them on. This is a common narcissism in the media. Free speech proponents lean into the storm, take on the bad guys and vanquish them with logic. They also seem, for the most part, incapable of following these rules themselves.

Bret Stephens of the New York Times – a Pulitzer prize-winning star columnist who was poached from the Wall Street Journal in 2017 – often flatters himself in this light, while falling apart at most of the criticism he receives. For a man who calls for “free speech and the necessity of discomfort” as one of his flagship positions as a columnist, he seems chronically unable to apply that discipline to himself.

In his latest tantrum , just last week, Stephens took umbrage against a stranger, the academic David Karpf, who made a joke calling him a “metaphorical bedbug” on Twitter, as a riff on a report that the New York Times building was suffering from a bedbug infestation. (The implication was that Stephens is a pain and difficult to get rid of, just to kill the punchline completely.)

Stephens was alerted to the tweet, then wrote to Karpf, his provost, and the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, where Karpf is a professor. He in effect asked to speak to Karpf’s managers so that he could report on a man he doesn’t know, who made a mild joke about him that would otherwise have been lost in the ether of the internet because – well, because, how dare he? The powerful don’t have to suffer “the necessity of discomfort”; it’s only those further down the food chain who must bear the moral burden of tolerance of abusive speech. Stephens’s opponents – who include Arabs, whose minds Stephens called “diseased”, and Palestinians, who are en masse one single “mosquito” frozen in amber – must bear it all with good grace.

Stephens has a long record of demanding respect when he refuses to treat others with the same. In response to an objection that the New York Times had published an article about a Nazi that seemed too sympathetic, he wrote: “A newspaper, after all, isn’t supposed to be a form of mental comfort food. We are not an advocacy group, a support network, a cheering section, or a church affirming a particular faith – except, that is, a faith in hard and relentless questioning.” He called disagreement “a dying art”. This was particularly rich from someone who at one time left social media because it was too shouty, only to return sporadically to hurl insults at his critics.

In June 2017, Stephens publicly forswore Twitter, saying that the medium debased politics and that he would “intercede only to say nice things about the writing I admire, the people I like and the music I love”.

He popped up again to call ex-Obama aide Tommy Vietor an “asshole” ( a tweet he later deleted after it was flagged as inappropriate by the New York Times). In response to a tweet by a Times colleague (who had himself deleted a comment after receiving flack for it, and admitted that it had not been well crafted), Stephens said: “This. Is. Insane. And must stop. And there is nothing wrong with your original tweet, @EricLiptonNYT. And there is something deeply psychologically wrong with people who think there is. And fascistic. And yes I’m still on Twitter.”

A dying art indeed. Stephens again deactivated his account after bedbug-gate, retreating to the safe space of the high security towers of the New York Times where, I am told, the bedbug infestation remains unvanquished.

Stephens is a promoter of the “free speech crisis” myth. It is one that journalists, academics and political writers have found useful in chilling dissent. The free-speech-crisis myth serves many purposes. Often it is erected as a moral shield for risible ideas – a shield that some members of the media are bamboozled into raising because of their inability to look past their commitment to free speech in the abstract.

T rolling has become an industry. It is now a sort of lucrative contact sport, where insults and lies are hurled around on television, radio, online and in the printed press. CNN’s coverage of the “Trump transition”, after Donald Trump was elected as US president, was a modern version of a medieval freak show. Step right up and gawk at Richard Spencer , the Trump supporter and head of far-right thinktank the National Policy Institute, as he questions whether Jews “are people at all, or instead soulless golem”. And at the black Trump surrogate who thinks Hillary Clinton started the war in Syria. And at Corey Lewandowski, a man who appeared on CNN as a political commentator, who appears to make a living from lying in the media, and who alleged that the Trump birther story , in which Trump claimed that Barack Obama was not born on US soil, was in fact started by Hillary Clinton.

In pursuit of ratings – from behind a “freedom of speech” figleaf, and perhaps with the good intention of balance on the part of some – many media platforms have detoxified the kind of extreme or untruthful talk that was until recently confined to the darker corners of Reddit or Breitbart. And that radical and untruthful behaviour has a direct impact on how safe the world is for those smeared by these performances. Trump himself is the main act in this lucrative show. Initially seen as an entertaining side act during his election campaign, his offensive, untruthful and pugnacious online presence became instantly more threatening and dangerous once he was elected. Inevitably, his incontinence, bitterness, rage and hatemongering, by sheer dint of constant exposure, became less and less shocking, and in turn less and less beyond the pale.

A world where all opinions and lies are presented to the public as a sort of take-it-or-leave it buffet is often described as “the marketplace of ideas”, a rationalisation for freedom of expression based on comparing ideas to products in a free-market economy. The marketplace of ideas model of free speech holds that what is true factually, and what is good morally, will emerge after a competition of ideas in a free, unmoderated and transparent public discourse, a healthy debate in which the truth will prevail. Bad ideas and ideologies will lose out and wither away as they are vanquished by superior ones. The problem with the marketplace of ideas theory (as with all “invisible hand”-type theories) is that it does not account for a world in which the market is skewed, and where not all ideas receive equal representation because the market has monopolies and cartels.

But real marketplaces actually require a lot of regulation. There are anti-monopoly rules, there are interest rate fixes and, in many markets, artificial currency pegs. In the press, publishing and the business of ideas dispersal in general, there are players that are deeply entrenched and networked, and so the supply of ideas reflects their power.

Freedom of speech is not a neutral, fixed concept, uncoloured by societal prejudice. The belief that it is some absolute, untainted hallmark of civilisation is linked to self-serving exceptionalism – a delusion that there is a basic template around which there is a consensus uninformed by biases. The recent history of fighting for freedom of speech has gone from something noble – striving for the right to publish works that offend people’s sexual or religious prudery, and speaking up against the values leveraged by the powerful to maintain control – to attacking the weak and persecuted. The effort has evolved from challenging upwards to punching downwards.

It has become bogged down in false equivalence and extending the sanctity of fact to opinion, thanks in part to a media that has an interest in creating from the discourse as much heat as possible – but not necessarily any light. Central in this process is an establishment of curators, publishers and editors for whom controversy is a product to be pushed. That is the marketplace of ideas now, not a free and organic exchange of intellectual goods.

The truth is that free speech, even to some of its most passionate founding philosophers, always comes with braking mechanisms, and they usually reflect cultural bias. John Milton advocated the destruction of blasphemous or libellous works: “Those which otherwise come forth, if they be found mischievous and libellous, the fire and the executioner will be the timeliest and the most effectual remedy, that mans [sic] prevention can use.” Today, our braking mechanisms still do not include curbing the promotion of hate towards those at the bottom end of the social hierarchy, because their protection is not a valued or integral part of our popular culture – despite what the free-speech-crisis myth-peddlers say.

Free speech as an abstract value is now directly at odds with the sanctity of life. It’s not merely a matter of “offence”. Judith Butler, a cultural theorist and Berkeley professor, speaking at a 2017 forum sponsored by the Berkeley Academic Senate, said: “If free speech does take precedence over every other constitutional principle and every other community principle, then perhaps we should no longer claim to be weighing or balancing competing principles or values. We should perhaps frankly admit that we have agreed in advance to have our community sundered, racial and sexual minorities demeaned, the dignity of trans people denied, that we are, in effect, willing to be wrecked by this principle of free speech.”

We challenge this instrumentalisation by reclaiming the true meaning of the freedom of speech (which is freedom to speak rather than a right to speak without consequence), challenging hate speech more forcefully, being unafraid to contemplate banning or no-platforming those we think are harmful to the public good, and being tolerant of objection to them when they do speak. Like the political-correctness myth, the free-speech-crisis myth is a call for orthodoxy, for passiveness in the face of assault.

A moral right to express unpopular opinions is not a moral right to express those opinions in a way that silences the voices of others, or puts them in danger of violence. There are those who abuse free speech, who wish others harm, and who roll back efforts to ensure that all citizens are treated with respect. These are facts – and free-speech-crisis mythology is preventing us from confronting them.

This is an edited extract from We Need New Stories: Challenging the Toxic Myths Behind Our Age of Discontent, published by W&N on 5 September and available at

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Freedom of Speech

By: Editors

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

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

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

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

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

First Amendment

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

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

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

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

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

Flag Burning

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

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

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

When Isn’t Speech Protected?

Not all speech is protected under the First Amendment.

Forms of speech that aren’t protected include:

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom of Expression

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

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

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

Free Speech in Schools

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

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

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

freedom of expression today essay

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Freedom Of Expression Essay Examples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Law , Freedom , Supreme Court , Criminal Justice , Crime , Belief , Democracy , Religion

Words: 1600

Published: 01/06/2020


Freedom of expression is perhaps the most fundamental and universally acknowledged freedoms in the world. Democracies are based on the idea of allowing anybody to freely express their views and such space maintains human dignity. The very first United Nations convention unanimously agreed adopt Article 19(2) of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which guarantees as humans the right to freely express their opinion (Mendel, 2). The United States has enshrined the freedom of expression in the constitution. Americans value the fact that expressing themselves has been one of the cornerstones of the American society. However, in the recent past this right seems to have been overexploited. There are several reported cases where some persons have expressed their opinion in a derogatory manner leading to unexpected reaction from the insulted individuals. It began in Denmark where a cartoon was published in one of daily newspapers. The cartoon was offensive towards the Islamic religion. Was ensued was protests from the Muslim world towards the west. Further, such insulting expression has emerged in the recent past where a short film was posted online insulting the Islamic faith. The reactions from the Muslim community were as expected. Riots and burning of flags and effigies representing the United States were witnessed all over the world. Some analysts argue that the recent bombing of the United State consulate in Benghazi Libya was a result of the said film. Thus, while freedom of expression may be the cornerstone of a democracy, are there limits to it? To what extent does the law restrict freedom of expression? Is it okay to insult religious figures such as Mohamed of Islam or Jesus Christ of Christianity? What is the responsible thing expected of everyone if we are all expected to live in harmony and cohesion? This research paper seeks to explore the limits, both social and legal, that should be pegged on freedom of expression.

Legal views

The right to expression has been protected by the First amendment of the United State constitution (Henry,1). Every court of law in the United States has the duty to uphold this right as one of the fundamental freedoms protected by law. According to such argument ridicule or insult directed at religious figures seem not to be limited. The right to denounce and argue against a religion is very much within legal purview and no one can be arrested for such actions. However, while the courts may find freedom of expression fundamental, several judicial precedence point to the fact there are limits when it comes to freedom of expression. One of the vital limits to freedom of expression is that such opinion should not direct at creating violence. In Chaplinsky vs New Hampshire (1942), the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that if any expression as used in plain language calls for a violent response on fellow men, such a expression will be deemed to have been illegal (Henry, 8). In many instances, several people have called upon others to wage war against fellow men. The US Supreme Court argued that words which can be classified as ‘fighting words’ go against the constitution and therefore cannot be accepted. In the same regard, if insults directed at religious figures call for violence, such expression is not protected by law. The Supreme Court has also restricted obscenity in expression. According to Miller v. California in 1973, the Supreme Court argued that expressions of obscenity do not enjoy the protection under the purview of freedom of expression (Henry, 2). Adler argues that much dispute may arise from defining the term obscenity. The supreme court, in expression its verdict, further sort to clarify the definition of the obscenity. In a three-part test now referred to as the Miller test, the Supreme Court argued that obscene is:

Any work of expression that, in community standard, appeals to prurient interest

Any expression that depicts sexual conduct in an offensive way and, The work, taken as whole, lacks any backing of art, literacy or scientific value. The Supreme Court directs that an act can be said to be obscene if all the three conditions as stated above are met. Therefore, if a ridicule or insult directed at a religious figure is found to be obscene, such expression is not protected by the law. Point in case is the Danish cartoon that caused much uproar around the world. The obscene depiction in the cartoon was quite insulting to the all communities without regard to religion.

Social views

The concept of religion is quite multifaceted and a matter that is central to most communities. Religion can be defined as a unified belief in some superior power beyond the ability and comprehension of ordinary men. Such belief in the unknown and unseen has defined several societies for ages. Wars and conflicts have been waged in the name religion the most common war being the campaign in the Middle Ages. European nations waged war against non-Christians claiming that they were infidels and should be eliminated. In similar recap, terrorism in the name of Jihad has emerged and is causing much concern. To this end, religion can be viewed as an emotive issue that needs to be respected. The United States constitution accords every citizen the right to any religion. The constitution allows all religions of all kinds and there are no restrictions towards practicing religion as long as it is within the law. Additionally, the constitution prohibits Congress from making legislation that could declare a religion the preferred religion for the country. In this regard, the concept of religions is acknowledged by the country and is given much respect. Thus what social responsibility lies with every individual with regard to freedom of speech and religion? According to the Human Rights Education Associates there lies an inherent responsibility to restrict speech that would evoke negative feelings with regard to religion. Unreasonable, angry and ill informed sentiments may stir negative and sectarian response. If insults are directed at different religious figures, it might result in exchanges likened to mud-slinging. In some instances, religions that may appear to be competition may end in violence and protracted sectarian wars. A good example of undesired outcome of religious insults and sectarian violence is in Nigeria. Northern Nigeria has experienced protracted sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians. The violence has killed several people with the government struggling to maintain order. It can therefore be argued that offensive speech directed at religious figures has far reaching implications. Decent could arise leading uncivilized societies defined by religion devoid other freedoms such democracy and peace . This inherent responsibility to respect other religion has been magnified by the spread of information technology. Nations and continents are now closer due to the internet. Information seems to disseminate across continents at very fast pace beyond the reach of governments. Adler argues that while the it might not be an issue to ridicule religious figures within the United States, such expressions reach other nations and may cause much uproar. This further deepens the negative perception that most ‘non-Christian’ nations already have towards the US.

The idea of free speech is one of the determinants of a progressive society. Democracies and the human fraternity value ideals that allow every individual to have the opportunity to express opinion. Constitutions and other legal documents have enshrined the freedom of speech or expression as one of the fundamental rights. A United Nations treaty considers freedom of expression to be vital. In all, the right to express opinion is a basic right that courts and law enforcing bodies assure citizens. When it comes to expressing insulting remarks towards religious figures, there are no legal instruments that may deter an individual as long as such expression is within the law. Either, the United State government does not limit the extent to which individual may express opinion with regard to religion. However, there is an inherent social responsibility towards respecting the religion of others. Insulting religious figures could as well be viewed ads insulting the faith and beliefs of an individual. For the sake of cohesion and good will among men it is inherent on everyone to let religion be. While it is okay to either criticize or reprimand other religion, expressing such opposition in a derogatory manner, is in my opinion, both repugnant and ill informed. What one considers sacred should be left as so.

Works Cited

Adler, Margot. Weighing the Limits of Freedom of Expression. 25 October 2006. 21 October 2012 . Limits of Freedom of Speech. 2010. 21 10 2012 . Henry, Cohenm. Freedom of Speech and Press: Exceptions to the First Amendment. Washington DC: Congressional Research Service, 2009. Human Rights Education Associates. Freedom of Expression. 2012. 21 10 2012 . Mendel, Toby. "Restricting Freedom of Expression: Standards and Principles; Background Paper for Meetings Hosted by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression." 2011.


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freedom of expression today essay

Understanding hate speech

Hate speech versus freedom of speech

freedom of expression today essay

The need to preserve freedom of expression from censorship by States or private corporations’ is often invoked to counter efforts to regulate hateful expression, in particular online.

Freedom of opinion and expression are, indeed, cornerstones of human rights and pillars of free and democratic societies. These freedoms support other fundamental rights, such as to peaceful assembly, to participate in public affairs, and to freedom of religion. It is undeniable that digital media, including social media, have bolstered the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas. Therefore, legislative efforts to regulate free expression unsurprisingly raise concerns that attempts to curb hate speech may silence dissent and opposition.

To counter hate speech, the United Nations supports more positive speech and upholds respect for freedom of expression as the norm. Therefore, any restrictions must be an exception and seek to prevent harm and ensure equality or the public participation of all. Alongside the relevant international human rights law provisions, the UN Rabat Plan of Action provides key guidance to States on the difference between freedom of expression and “incitement” (to discrimination, hostility and violence), which is prohibited under criminal law. Determining when the potential of harm is high enough to justify prohibiting speech is still the subject of much debate. But States can also use alternative tools – such as education and promoting counter-messages – to address the whole spectrum of hateful expression, both on and offline.

“Addressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech. It means keeping hate speech from escalating into something more dangerous, particularly incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, which is prohibited under international law.”

— United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, May 2019

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Freedom of Expression: An Essay on Rights, Relation and Recognition

(Note: This essay is a shorter version …)*

[1]  In January 1995, a University of Michigan sophomore known as Jake Baker posted a short story to an Internet site devoted to explicit fiction.[1]  In January 1995, a University of Michigan sophomore known as Jake Baker posted a short story to an Internet site devoted to explicit fiction. 1  The story, "Pamela's Ordeal," graphically recounted the narrator's rape, torture, and murder of a woman who was given the same name as one of Baker's classmates. A university investigation found that, in addition to writing several similar stories, Baker had also engaged in a long email exchange with a Canadian man, in which the two had shared their desires to commit sexual violence against young women, discussed how they would go about it, and made vague plans to meet.

[2]  Based on this information, the university suspended Baker and banned him from campus. A week later, he was arrested and charged with the federal offense of transmitting threats in interstate or foreign commerce. The charges were later dismissed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which ruled 2 to 1 that Baker's conduct did not amount to a threat under federal law. 2

[3]  The Baker case sparked intense controversy not only within the university, but across the country and on the Internet. On one side, Catharine MacKinnon and others asserted that Baker's story constituted a form of assaultive speech, which was deeply degrading to the woman that it named and threatening to her sense of safety. Others, including officials of the American Civil Liberties Union, responded that while the story was abhorrent, it was merely fiction or fantasy, fully entitled to constitutional protection. 3

[4]  In many ways, the Baker case is typical of contemporary disputes over freedom of expression. Whether they focus on hate speech, pornography, flagburning, cigarette advertising, abortion-clinic demonstrations, protecting the identities of sexual assault victims, tobacco advertising, violent entertainment, the National Endowment for the Arts, Internet regulation, or other issues, these controversies tend to have the same basic structure. 4  Those who advocate the regulation of a particular kind of expression contend that it causes serious harm to individuals, groups, or the community at large. Opponents are often skeptical about the seriousness of this injury. In any event, they argue, the First Amendment denies government the power to prevent such harm through the suppression of speech. 5

[5]  Of course, it is difficult to deny that speech can sometimes be regulated consistent with the First Amendment. Few, for example, would question the government's authority to punish incitement of violence or false advertising. 6  Yet we have no well-developed and generally accepted view of when regulation is legitimate. In the absence of any common ground to appeal to, First Amendment disputes seem increasingly bitter and irresolvable.

[6]  It is hard to see how this stalemate can be broken without a more general theory of the scope of free expression–a view that integrates both the justifications and the limits of this freedom into a coherent whole. This essay makes a start toward developing such a theory. Its central thesis is that freedom of speech is limited by the fundamental rights of other individuals and of the community.

Natural Rights, Social Welfare, and the First Amendment

[7]  As I have shown elsewhere, this idea was regarded as axiomatic when the First Amendment was adopted. 7  Eighteenth-century Americans drew on a variety of sources for their understanding of free speech, including the common law and the civic republican tradition. 8  But the most comprehensive framework that they looked to was provided by natural rights theory. According to this theory, freedom of speech is a right inherent in human nature as well as republican citizenship. Like all such rights, however, it is bounded by the rights of others. 9  The classic example is defamation. While I have a right to free speech, others have a right to reputation. Government is instituted to protect rights against wrongful injury. On this view, the state has not only the authority but the duty to restrict speech when it unjustifiably defames others.

[8]  Natural rights theory thus suggests a rather straightforward principle: that freedom of speech is limited by the rights of others, and that the law may protect these rights against expression that violates them. Although this principle was widely held when the First Amendment was adopted, it no longer holds a central place in American constitutional theory or doctrine. Instead, we now generally view First Amendment problems in terms of an opposition between freedom of speech and "state interests."

[9]  To understand this shift, we need to briefly explore the transformation of American jurisprudence after the Civil War. 10 During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the theory of natural rights gave way to a more positivist and utilitarian conception of law. On this view, rights are not inherent in individuals, but derive their force from the positive law of the state. The purpose of law is to promote social welfare, not to protect individual rights as such.

[10]  The advent of this view undermined the traditional rationale for protecting free expression. Rather than a right of nature or of democratic citizenship, free speech was represented as merely one interest to be weighed in the utilitarian calculus. There was nothing distinctive about speech that entitled it to special protection, or that placed it beyond the authority of the state to regulate like any other form of activity.

[11]  The central task of modern First Amendment thought has been to reconstruct a justification for freedom of speech within the framework of post-natural-rights jurisprudence. During the early twentieth century, leading defenders of the First Amendment such as Harvard law professor Zechariah Chafee, Jr., and Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis D. Brandeis emphasized the importance of free speech for democratic self-government and the search for truth. For these reasons, they argued, the social interest in free speech was so great that it should give way only where speech presented a "clear and present danger" to other important social interests. 11

[12]  By the middle of the century, the "clear and present danger" test had evolved into a general balancing of speech against other social interests. As Justice Hugo Black forcefully argued, this approach failed to provide reliable protection for speech. 12  In more recent years, free speech has once more come to be regarded as a right. But this revival of the idea of rights in First Amendment jurisprudence has not extended to the other values that may be harmed by speech. These values continue to be characterized as social interests or (since the state is regarded as the spokesman for such interests) as state interests.

[13]  In this way we have come to conceive of First Amendment issues as clashes between free speech rights and state interests–a term within which the rights of others have been absorbed. When the issue is posed in this way, we seem to face a tragic dilemma in which the more we protect speech, the more we must sacrifice other rights, and vice versa. It is for this reason above all that contemporary free speech controversies appear so intractable, and that the disputants so often seem to talk past each other. These problems, which go to the heart of modern First Amendment theory, should lead us to consider returning to a rights-based approach.

Free Speech in a Framework of Rights

[14]  In constructing a rights-based theory of the First Amendment, I shall draw on the liberal natural rights tradition identified with Locke and Kant–a tradition which, as we have seen, did much to shape the ideological background of the First Amendment, and which continues to represent a deep current in American thought. 13  On this view, rights are rooted in the concept of human liberty. The core meaning of liberty is self-determination: a free person is one who determines her own thoughts and actions, rather than being determined by something other than herself. 14 Natural rights theory then develops the content of rights by exploring what it means to be a free person in various spheres of life. These include (1) the individual's existence in the external world; (2) her inner life and its expression to others; (3) her social and political life; and (4) her intellectual and spiritual activity. 15  In the following sections, I shall show that these four aspects of liberty not only provide the major justifications for free speech, but also give rise to other fundamental rights. When speech violates these rights, I argue, it may properly be regulated unless its value is so great as to outweigh the injuries that it causes.

Free Speech and External Rights

[15]  The first, and simplest, way to understand freedom of speech is as an aspect of liberty in general–the exercise of an individual's natural capacities for thought and expression. On this view, free speech falls within the traditional natural rights to life, liberty, and property. 16  But of course other individuals also have a right to be secure in their persons and property. Speech violates this right when it amounts to an imminent assault; when it conveys a serious threat of future violence; or when it incites third parties to attack others. Since individual rights exist under the protection of the community, such speech may also constitute a breach of the public peace, and may thus result in criminal as well as civil liability.

Free Speech and Rights of Personality

[16]  To be fully free, a person must be free not only externally but also in her inner life. This brings us to a second category of rights, which I shall call rights of personality. Like the traditional triad of life, liberty, and property, these rights are rooted in our nature as autonomous beings. The focus of self-determination has shifted, however: rather than acting in the external world, the self now turns inward to shape its own intellectual and emotional life. Rights of personality reflect what it means to be a free person in this internal realm.

[17]  First Amendment rights may be understood in this way as well. In determining his own thoughts, beliefs, values, and emotions, an individual shapes his inner self or personality. He further realizes himself through the expression of his thoughts and feelings to others. It follows that unjustified restrictions on speech and thought are wrongful not merely because of the limits they impose on outward liberty, but also in a deeper way, because they obstruct the individual's right to autonomously determine, express, and realize his own personality.

[18]  At the same time, individuals also have other rights of personality, some of which may be violated by speech. First, speech can cause substantive injury through the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Second, I would argue that severely abusive speech infringes the inviolability of personality, in much the same way that offensive battery (an unauthorized touching that "offends a reasonable sense of personal dignity" 17 ) violates bodily integrity. Third, speech and related forms of conduct can constitute an invasion of privacy, or the right to maintain the integrity of one's personal life by preserving the boundary that separates it from other persons. Finally, defamation violates the right to reputation, which can be understood as the social dimension of personality.

Free Speech and Community

[19]  Self-determination takes place not only on an individual but also on a communal level. This leads to the third justification for free speech: that it is central to democratic self-government. In a classic statement of this view, Alexander Meiklejohn invokes the image of a traditional town meeting. Citizens must hear all sides of an issue, he argues, if they are to reach the wisest and most fully informed decisions. 18

[20]  For Meiklejohn, this image also suggests the appropriate limits of free speech. The town meeting cannot function unless its members observe some rules of order, such as the rule that forbids personal abuse in debate. Speech of this kind, he says, obstructs the deliberative process, and thus "threatens to defeat the purpose of the meeting." For this reason, it is not protected by the First Amendment. 19

[21]  This highlights a crucial point about the nature of free speech rights. When viewed in terms of general liberty or self-realization, free speech was an essentially individual right–a right that in principle could be exercised by a single individual, without any interaction with others. In contrast, political free speech can be understood as a relational right–a right to interact with others in a particular way. It is a right to engage in discourse with other individuals who have the same rights of citizenship and participation, and who share certain interests as a community. The right to political participation therefore carries with it a duty to respect the corresponding rights of other citizens and of the community itself. This limitation is not imposed from the outside, by the existence of other kinds of rights, but is an internal limit that arises from the very nature of the right to political speech.

Free Speech and the Search for Truth

[22]  The last major justification for free speech is that it is necessary for the pursuit of truth. In addition to the instrumental value that knowledge has in furthering other ends, classical theorists such as Milton and Mill hold that the search for truth has intrinsic value in developing people's intellectual capacities, and thereby realizing their nature as rational beings. 20

[23]  Once again, this rationale not only provides a basis for free speech, but also points to some constraints on that freedom. First, in asserting a right to intellectual freedom, an individual appeals to her status as a rational being. But this status is one that she shares with human beings in general. It follows that an individual cannot consistently assert this right and at the same time refuse to recognize others as rational beings. Second, as Professor Susan Williams demonstrates, in many ways truth is intersubjective, and can be attained only through communication with others. 21  To this extent, the search for truth also may be understood as a relational right which requires respect for other participants.

[24]  It is important to stress the limited role of these two constraints. I do not mean to imply that they provide an affirmative justification for regulating speech. For the liberal tradition, the coercive powers of government do not extend to matters of thought or belief as such; government may never restrict speech simply because of disagreement with it or fear that it will undermine the truth. Instead, my contention is simply that speech that violates these constraints has less value for the search for truth. This means that there is a weaker argument for protecting such speech in cases where it can be shown to violate other rights.

Conflicts of Rights

[25]  On the view outlined here, free speech must be exercised with due regard for the rights of others. It does not follow, however, that speech must always give way to other rights. In some cases, an apparent conflict can be resolved by adjusting the boundaries of the competing rights. Even when this is not possible, speech that infringes other rights is only presumptively wrongful, for it may have such value that it should be regarded as justified despite the injury that it causes.

[26]  There are three related ways of approaching conflicts of rights. The first is to balance the rights in order to determine which has more value. Of course, to do this we need a common standard by which to measure them. For the rights-based theory, that standard may be found in the four elements of liberty that justify these rights in the first place. Thus, rights have value as aspects of (1) external freedom, (2) internal freedom to develop and express one's personality, (3) freedom to participate in social and political life, and (4) intellectual and spiritual freedom to pursue meaning and truth. The ultimate question is which right, at the margin, is more important as an aspect of human liberty.

[27]  In contrast to balancing, which involves an external comparison of rights, the second approach explores whether there is any internal relationship between them. 22  For example, individuals cannot speak freely unless they feel secure against violence. In this sense personal security is the most basic of rights. Thus, speech should not be protected when it is used to seriously threaten the safety of others.

[28]  At the same time, it is important to recognize that the relationship between rights does not necessarily run in only one direction. Thus, while personal security is a necessary condition for freedom of speech, the converse is also true. Free speech is essential to political liberty, which the liberal democratic tradition regards as the ultimate safeguard of all other rights. 23  It follows that political speech should not be restricted on the basis of merely speculative fears of injury, but only when it poses a direct and substantial threat to other rights.

[29]  This discussion of the interrelatedness of rights suggests a further point: that rights are integral to a larger whole. This leads to a third way of resolving conflicts, which is to ask which right, under the circumstances, is most important to the system of constitutional liberty as a whole. For example, while individuals have a right to reputation, in the case of public officials that right must give way to the community's right to assess their character and performance, a right that is vital to democratic government. For this reason, the Supreme Court held in New York Times v. Sullivan that defamatory statements regarding the official conduct of public officials are constitutionally protected unless knowingly or recklessly false. 24

[30]  In some cases, then, speech should be protected despite the injury it causes to other rights. This principle is subject to an important constraint, however: an act of speech cannot be privileged merely because the speaker values the wrongful consequences of the act, but only for some other reason. For example, while an individual may have a right to threaten another in self-defense, there can be no right to threaten merely because one desires to invade another's right to personal security.

The Rights-based Theory and Contemporary First Amendment Jurisprudence

[31]  As a way of contrasting the rights-based theory with current free speech jurisprudence, I would like to consider the Supreme Court's 1989 decision in Florida Star v. B.J.F. 25  After B.J.F. was raped at knifepoint by an unknown assailant, she reported the crime to the county sheriff's department. A few days later, theFlorida Star published a full account of the rape which identified her by name. A jury later ordered the newspaper to pay B.J.F. $100,000 in damages for violating a Florida statute that made it unlawful to publish the names of sexual assault victims.

[32]  By a 6 to 3 vote, the Supreme Court overturned the award under the First Amendment. Justice Marshall's opinion for the majority frames the issue as a conflict between the press's right to publish truthful, lawfully obtained information, on one hand, and what he calls the "state interest" in protecting the privacy and safety of rape victims, on the other. Marshall recognizes that this is an "interest of the highest order," but asserts that, under the circumstances, the statute was not necessary to protect them, because the government itself had inadvertently given the Star's reporter access to B.J.F.'s name. 26  For this reason, the Court held the application of the law invalid under the "strict scrutiny" test, which holds that restrictions on the content of expression are presumptively unconstitutional and will be upheld only when they can be shown to be necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest.

[33]  Florida Star would look very different from a rights-based perspective. On this view, the statute's purpose was not to promote the interests of the state, but to protect the rights of the victim. The government's own failure to comply with the law should not have the effect of waiving B.J.F.'s rights, or relieving the newspaper of its own duty to respect them. Instead of applying a standard heavily weighted toward one side of the balance, the rights-based view would compare the two rights in terms of their value for human liberty. On one hand, the Star's action seriously invaded B.J.F.'s fundamental rights to privacy and personal security. On the other hand, it is difficult to see any important value served by disclosing her name, at least before anyone has been charged with the crime. Under the rights-based theory, then, the Supreme Court clearly came out the wrong way in Florida Star. 27

Hate Speech

[34]  Let us now explore how this theory would apply to the problem of hate speech–whether the First Amendment should protect expression that abuses or degrades others on the basis of such traits as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. 28  In approaching this issue, the theory begins with the concept of recognition.

[35]  For the natural rights tradition, rights are ultimately rooted in personhood. It follows that an individual cannot enjoy rights in relation to others unless they recognize him as a free person. Recognition is the most fundamental right that individuals have in relation to others–a right that lies at the basis of all their other rights. 29

[36]  From a rights-oriented perspective, the core problem with hate speech is that it denies recognition to its targets. In fact, I believe that hate speech can best be defined as expression that intentionally denies recognition to others, and thereby expresses hostility towards them. In addition to conflicting with the very basis of right, hate speech in many cases violates the concrete rights of individuals and the community. In such cases, I would hold that hate speech may be regulated, except where its value is sufficient to justify the injuries that it inflicts. In developing this view, it will be useful to begin with private hate speech, or that directed toward particular individuals, and then turn to the problem of public hate speech, such as that involved in the Skokie affair.

Private Hate Speech

[37]  In some cases, hate speech that relates to particular individuals will amount to an assault, threat, or incitement to violence. And of course group-based insults are also one of the most common forms of "fighting words." 30  In all these cases, the speech infringes the targets' right to personal security, and/or the community's right to the peace. 31  Private hate speech may also violate rights of personality, through intentional infliction of emotional distress, attacks on personal dignity, or invasion of privacy. Finally, hate speech contravenes the right to equality by denying all of these rights on the basis of race or other invidious grounds. 32

[38]  Insofar as they violate these rights, acts of private hate speech are presumptively wrongful under the rights-based theory. For this reason, they should be held unprotected unless they have sufficient value to justify the injuries that they cause.

[39]  As an illustration, consider the classic form of hate speech in the United States–the burning of a cross to express hostility toward African-Americans or other racial, ethnic, or religious minorities. Suppose that the Ku Klux Klan burns a cross at night in front of the home of an African-American family that has recently moved into a white neighborhood, for the purpose of terrorizing the family and causing them to move. It is difficult to imagine a more serious invasion of personal security. If cross-burning occurs inside the family's yard, it will also violate their property rights, as well as criminal laws against trespass and arson.

[40]  The Klansmen's conduct also infringes the family members' rights of personality. The act is a flagrant and deeply offensive intrusion into their private lives, and thus constitutes an invasion of privacy. In addition, it is difficult to conceive of a clearer case of intentional infliction of emotional distress.

[41]  Does cross-burning, when it is directed against particular individuals, have sufficient value to justify the injuries that it causes? Undoubtedly it constitutes a form of self-expression. As we have seen, however, an act of expression cannot be privileged on account of the very aspect that makes it wrongful in the first place. A person has no right to pursue her own self-realization when it is defined in terms of denying the self-realization of others, and is directed toward them.

[42]  It might also be argued that the Klansmen's conduct should be protected because it is intended, at least in part, to express a political view. Even if cross-burning is entitled to protection as political speech, however–an issue that we shall come to shortly–it does not follow that this protection should apply to acts directed against particular persons. The Klan could communicate its political message just as effectively by burning a cross elsewhere, without inflicting serious injuries to specific individuals. Or, if this is not the case, then the increased effectiveness arises solely from the wrongful aspect of the conduct, the terror and degradation that it inflicts on the family. For these reasons, cross-burning directed toward particular persons should not be protected as free expression.

[43]  So far, my claim has been that hate speech may be restricted when it falls within an unprotected category of speech, such as fighting words. Suppose, however, that a jurisdiction chooses to ban not fighting words in general, but only those based on race or other group-based traits. In R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that such laws are unconstitutional. Such a selective ban, said Justice Scalia, would violate the basic principle that government may not discriminate based on the content of speech. 33

[44]  Justice Scalia's analysis in R.A.V. is extremely complex, and I have criticized it in some depth elsewhere. 34  But the short response is this. While ordinary assaults or fighting words violate the target's rights, hate speech strikes at the very existence of those rights, by denying the target's status as a person and a member of the community. In this way, hate speech inflicts a deeper injury, and thus calls for a stronger response, than more ordinary kinds of assaultive speech.

Public Hate Speech

[45]  Finally, let us turn to the most difficult and controversial problem–that of public or political hate speech. Suppose that (as in the Skokie case) a group of neo-Nazis or Klansmen plan to hold a march in full regalia through a predominantly Jewish or African-American neighborhood, in order to express their belief that those groups should be subjected to segregation, deportation, or genocide. 35  The question is whether such expression should be protected because of its political character.

[46]  The protection of political speech is correctly regarded as a central concern of the First Amendment. But while this right is fundamental, it is not absolute. Instead, as I have suggested, it is best understood as a relational right–a right to engage in discourse with one's fellow citizens, in a way that respects their own rights of membership and participation.

[47]  I would argue that political hate speech violates these rights in two main ways. First, it infringes the rights of target-group members to be treated as free and equal citizens who are capable of participating in self-government. In this way it contravenes their rights as members of the political community. Such speech also violates the integrity of the deliberative process by undermining the possibility of reasoned discourse. As Meiklejohn observes, such discourse depends on the existence of mutual respect among citizens. 36

[48]  Second, in a democratic society, the people not only govern but also are governed. Political hate speech violates the rights of its targets in this capacity as well. Individuals have a fundamental right to recognition by the community that governs them. This may be regarded as the core meaning of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and extended the rights of citizenship to all Americans. But this duty of recognition, I would argue, is one that binds not only the community itself but also its members. As citizens, individuals have a right to share in the political power of the community. With this right comes a corresponding duty to use that power in accord with the same obligations that the community itself has. Thus, citizens have a duty to recognize those over whom they exercise political power. They breach this duty when they engage in hate speech.

[49]  For these reasons, political hate speech should be considered presumptively wrongful under the rights-based model. The question then becomes whether it should nevertheless be privileged because of its value as political speech.

[50]  Following Meiklejohn, we might regard the paradigm case of political speech as expression that is addressed to the political community regarding an issue that it must decide. Judged by this standard, political hate speech lacks full value for two reasons. First, it is directed not to the community as a whole, but only to part of it–those who are not minorities. Insofar as it addresses the latter at all, it treats them not as citizens, but as objects of hatred and contempt. Second, when hate speech proposes extreme measures like segregation, deportation, or genocide, it does not relate to a matter of public policy for the people to decide, for no group of people can have the right to impose such measures on others.

[51]  Of course, to say that hate speech lacks full value is not to say that it has no value at all. For example, it is sometimes argued that hate speech provides useful information about the prevalence of racism, or that it helps us develop the social virtue of tolerance. 37  Arguments of this sort do not, however, assert that hate speech has any value in itself, or that it makes a legitimate contribution to public debate. Instead, the speech is to be valued for something else that we may be able to find in it. This indirect value does not seem sufficient to outweigh the serious injuries that hate speech causes both to its targets and to the polity as a whole.

[52]  Nor should public hate speech be protected because of its contribution to the pursuit of truth. As I have suggested, the search for truth requires that human beings recognize one another as reasonable beings who are capable of participating in a common enterprise of inquiring after truth. Because hate speech denies recognition to others, it can make no direct contribution to this process. And, once more, while hate speech may have some indirect value in this respect, that value does not seem sufficient to outweigh the injuries that it causes to the rights of others. 38

[53]  However one resolves the difficult issues surrounding public hate speech, it is clear that, under the rights-based theory, there is a realm of thought and expression that is beyond the legitimate reach of the law. Thus freedom of thought can never properly be restricted, since a person's inner thoughts can never violate the rights of others. The same is true of expression that is not communicated to others. This right of private thought and expression probably should also apply to private conversations, and to internal expression within small groups. 39  Scientific and intellectual inquiry should also be protected; 40  expression comes within the sphere of law only when it is directed toward affecting the rights of others.

[54]  In conclusion, let us briefly return to the case with which we began, that of Jake Baker. Assuming that, when Baker posted his story to the Internet, he did not intend for it to be read by anyone who would reasonably regard it as expressing a serious intent to assault the woman that it named, he should not be held to have made a criminal threat. Baker clearly violated the woman's rights of personality, however. In addition to recklessly inflicting severe emotional distress, his conduct constituted a profound invasion of her right to personal dignity and inviolability. Finally, whatever value the story may have had as self-expression or a contribution to culture, it was not necessary for him to use the name of an actual person. Because he could have achieved the same ends without violating the rights of others, his conduct should not be protected under the First Amendment.

* This essay is a shorter version of Steven J. Heyman,  Righting the Balance: An Inquiry into the Foundations and Limits of Freedom of Expression , 78 BOSTON UNIVERSITY LAW REVIEW– (forthcoming Dec. 1998) [hereinafter  Righting the Balance ]. It was presented at the Chicago-Kent Legal Theory Workshop, and at the inaugural meeting of the Working Group on Law, Culture and Humanities held at Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C., in March 1998. I am grateful to the participants in that session, especially Vincent Blasi, Charles Lawrence, Milton Regan, and Susan Williams, for their thoughtful comments on the issues raised by this essay, and to Alison Baldwin, Anita Bernstein, Jacob Corré, Michael Curtis, David Gerber, Carol Miller, Vincent Samar, and Steven Wilf for their reading of earlier drafts. I also learned much from conversations with Thomas Grey and Robert Post. Kerry Bartell, Jennifer O'Neill, and Lisa Weier provided valuable research assistance. Finally, I should like to express my deep gratitude for the research support provided by the Norman and Edna Freehling Scholars Fund, which made this project possible.

If you are outside the US and would like to obtain a copy of the long version of this essay (approximately 165 pages), contact the Editor at  [email protected] . back

  • The facts of the Baker incident are recounted in United States v. Baker, 890 F. Supp. 1375 (E.D. Mich. 1995), and United States v. Alkhabaz, 104 F.3d 1492 (6th Cir. 1997), as well as in news accounts such as Megan Garvey,  Crossing the Line on the Info Highway,  WASHINGTON POST, March 11, 1995, at H1. The short story is reproduced in Alkhabaz, 104 F.3d at 1497-98 n.1 (Krupansky, J., dissenting). back
  • United States v. Alkhabaz, 104 F.3d 1492 (6th Cir. 1997). back
  • See, e.g., All Things Considered  (National Public Radio broadcast, March 15, 1995) (transcript available on NEXIS, News library, Arcnws file) (remarks of Catharine MacKinnon); Agence France Presse,  Court Upholds E-mail as Free Speech,  Jan. 30, 1997 (transcript available on NEXIS, News library, Curnws file) (quoting Howard Simon, executive director of American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, asserting that "[e]ven sick fantasies are free speech" protected by the First Amendment). back
  • For the leading American cases on hate speech, see Collin v. Smith, 578 F.2d 1197, 1200 (7th Cir.),  cert. denied,  439 U.S. 916 (1978) (ruling that members of a neo-Nazi organization have a First Amendment right to march in the predominantly Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois), and R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992) (holding that a city ordinance banning the display of swastikas, burning crosses, and like symbols violates the First Amendment). On pornography, see American Booksellers Assn. v. Hudnut, 771 F.2d 323 (7th Cir. 1985),  aff'd mem.,  475 U.S. 1001 (1986) (striking down the feminist anti-pornography ordinance drafted by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin). The Supreme Court held laws against flagburning unconstitutional inTexas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989). For a decision upholding limited restrictions on abortion-clinic demonstrations, see Madsen v. Women's Health Ctr., 114 S. Ct. 2516 (1994). In several cases, the Supreme Court has held that states may not prohibit the media from publishing the names of sexual assault victims. See, e.g.,Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989), discussed below. For a decision on tobacco advertising, see Penn Advertising v. Mayor, 63 F.3d 1318 (4th Cir. 1995) (upholding Baltimore ordinance banning most outdoor advertising of cigarettes),  vacated and remanded,  116 S. Ct. 2575 (1996), aff'd on reconsideration,  101 F.3d 332 (4th Cir. 1996),  cert. denied,  117 S. Ct. 1569 (1997). Some recent developments on entertainment violence are described in Lawrie Mifflin,  Deal on Making Ratings for TV Specify Content,  NEW YORK TIMES, July 10, 1997, at A1, col. 1. This summer, in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley, 118 S. Ct. 2168 (1998), the Supreme Court rejected a First Amendment challenge to a law requiring the NEA to take account of "general standards of decency" in awarding grants to artists. In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 117 S. Ct. 2329 (1997), the Supreme Court struck down a federal law regulating indecency on the Internet. back
  • It is important to note that those who support or oppose regulation often vary from one issue to another. Thus conservatives often support prohibitions on flagburning, while liberals oppose them; to a large extent, these positions are reversed on the regulation of cigarette advertising and anti-abortion demonstrations. back
  • See  Konigsberg v. State Bar, 366 U.S. 36, 49 n.10 (1961) (Harlan, J.) (observing that an absolutist reading of the First Amendment "cannot be reconciled with the law relating to libel, slander, misrepresentation, obscenity, perjury, false advertising, solicitation of crime, complicity by encouragement, conspiracy, and the like"). back
  • I trace the history of the American conception of freedom of speech in  Righting the Balance, supra  note *, Part I. back
  • For the common-law understanding of liberty of the press, see 4 WILLIAM BLACKSTONE, COMMENTARIES ON THE LAWS OF ENGLAND *151-53 (St. George Tucker ed., 1803 & photo. reprint 1969). The civic republican approach is best represented by JOHN TRENCHARD & THOMAS GORDON, CATO'S LETTERS (Ronald Hamowy ed., 1995) (London 6th ed. 1755) [hereinafter CATO'S LETTERS]. back
  • A classic statement of the natural rights view appears in this passage by the Jeffersonian Republican jurist St. George Tucker: Liberty of speech and of discussion in all speculative matters, consists in the absolute and uncontrollable right of speaking, writing, and publishing, our opinions concerning any subject, whether religious, philosophical, or political; and of inquiring into and, examining the nature of truth, whether moral or metaphysical; the expediency or inexpediency of all public measures, with their tendency and probable effect; the conduct of public men, and generally every other subject, without restraint, except as to the injury of any other individual, in his person, property, or good name. St. George Tucker,  Of the Right of Conscience; and of the Freedom of Speech and of the Press,   in  1 BLACKSTONE,  supra note 8, app. G, at 11. back
  • For a valuable account of this transformation, see MORTON J. HORWITZ, THE TRANSFORMATION OF AMERICAN LAW, 1870-1960 (1992). back
  • See  ZECHARIAH CHAFEE, JR., FREEDOM OF SPEECH (1920); Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616, 630 (1919) (Holmes, J., dissenting); Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring). For excellent accounts of the development of modern First Amendment jurisprudence, see MARK A. GRABER, TRANSFORMING FREE SPEECH: THE AMBIGUOUS LEGACY OF CIVIL LIBERTARIANISM (1991); David M. Rabban,  The Emergence of Modern First Amendment Doctrine,  50 UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LAW REVIEW 1205 (1983); David M. Rabban,  Free Speech in Progressive Social Thought,  74 TEXAS LAW REVIEW 951 (1996). back
  • See, e.g.,  Konigsberg v. State Bar, 366 U.S. 36, 60-62, 74-75 (1961) (Black, J., dissenting). back
  • For some contemporary works in this tradition, see ROBERT NOZICK, ANARCHY, STATE, AND UTOPIA (1974); JOHN RAWLS, ATHEORY OF JUSTICE (1971). back
  • On liberty as self-determination, see JOHN LOCKE, AN ESSAY CONCERNING HUMAN UNDERSTANDING bk. II, ch. 21 (Peter H. Nidditch ed., 1975) (4th ed. 1700); IMMANUEL KANT, FOUNDATIONS OF THE METAPHYSICS OF MORALS *446-47 (Lewis W. Beck trans, 2d ed., 1990); IMMANUEL KANT, THE METAPHYSICS OF MORALS *213-14 (Mary Gregor trans., 1991); HEGEL, ELEMENTS OF THE PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT §§ 5-7 (Allen W. Wood ed., H.B. Nisbet trans., 1991) [hereinafter HEGEL, PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT]. back
  • In order to avoid the awkwardness of "his or her," I shall alternate between masculine and feminine generic pronouns. back
  • See, e.g.,  CATO'S LETTERS,  supra  note 8, No. 62 (treating freedom of thought and speech as aspects of natural liberty). back
  • RESTATEMENT (SECOND) OF TORTS §§ 18-19 (1965). back
  • Id.  at 24-25. back
  • See  JOHN MILTON, AREOPAGITICA,  in  AREOPAGITICA AND OF EDUCATION (George H. Sabine ed., 1951) (1644); JOHN STUART MILL, ON LIBERTY ch. 2 (David Spitz ed., 1975) (1859). back
  • Susan H. Williams,  A Feminist Theory of Truth  (forthcoming). back
  • On this approach, see JEREMY WALDRON,  Rights in Conflict, in  LIBERAL RIGHTS 203 (1993). back
  • See  Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319, 327 (1937) (observing that freedom of speech and thought "is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom"). back
  • New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964). back
  • Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524 (1989). back
  • Id.  at 533-34, 537-39. back
  • A more difficult problem would be presented in contexts where a substantial public interest would be served by publication, such as reporting public proceedings in a criminal trial.  See, e.g.,  Cox Broad. Corp. v. Cohn, 420 U.S. 469 (1975). back
  • For a discussion of recognition in Hobbes, Locke, and other early modern natural rights theorists, see Steven J. Heyman,  Hate Speech and the Theory of Free Expression,   in  HATE SPEECH AND THE CONSTITUTION,  supra  note 28, at xli-xlii, xlvii-xlix [hereinafter Heyman,  Hate Speech ]. The concept of recognition and its relationship with right are more fully developed in later works, especially those of Fichte and Hegel.  See, e.g.,  J.G. FICHTE, SCIENCE OF RIGHTS (A.E. Kroeger trans., 1889) (1796); HEGEL, PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT,  supra  note 14, §§ 36, 57, 71, 84-85, 95, 331; G.W.F. HEGEL, PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT §§ 178-96 (A.V. Miller trans., 1977) (5th ed., J. Hoffmeister ed., 1952).  See   generally  AXEL HONNETH, THE STRUGGLE FOR RECOGNITION (1995); ROBERT R. WILLIAMS, RECOGNITION (1992). For an excellent discussion of recognition and its relationship to contemporary controversies on campus, see Charles Taylor,  The Politics of Recognition,  in MULTICULTURALISM AND "THE POLITICS OF RECOGNITION" 25-73 (Amy Guttmann ed., Princeton University Press, 1992). back
  • In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 572 (1942), the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment did not protect "insulting or 'fighting' words," which it defined as "those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." I defend a limited version of theChaplinskydoctrine in  Righting the Balance, supra  note *, Part IV.A back
  • A 1989 incident at Arizona State University provides a dramatic example of all of these offenses. A fight started between a black student, Toby Wright, and a white fraternity member, Sean Hedgecock, after Hedgecock allegedly said, "Fuck you, nigger." Two dozen fraternity members then emerged from their house and surrounded Wright and two other blacks, chanting racial slurs. The fight was broken up by police, who alleged that Hedgecock continued to shout epithets and threatened to "get those niggers and kill them." Later that night, Hedgecock saw two other black students and shouted, "Those are the niggers! They're back!" Several hundred people then flooded out of nearby fraternity houses and surrounded the blacks, watching while a group of white fraternity members beat them up. The incident is recounted in Jon Wiener, Words That Wound: Free Speech for Campus Bigots?,  250 THE NATION 272 (Feb. 26, 1990). back
  • Of course, this is a central theme of the critical-race-theory literature on hate speech.  See, e.g., MATSUDA ET AL.,  supra note 28;  see also  CATHARINE A. MACKINNON, ONLY WORDS (1993) (arguing that hate speech, pornography, and racial and sexual harassment constitute denials of equality. On the right to equality within the rights-based theory, see Heyman,  Hate Speech , supra  note 29, at lviii-lix. back
  • R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992). back
  • See  Heyman,  Hate Speech,   supra  note 29, at xliii-xlvi. back
  • For the Skokie litigation, see Collin v. Smith, 578 F.2d 1197, 1200 (7th Cir.),  cert. denied,  439 U.S. 916 (1978); Village of Skokie v. National Socialist Party of America, 373 N.E.2d 21 (Ill. 1978). The controversy generated a rich and extensive literature. See, e.g.,  LEE C. BOLLINGER, THE TOLERANT SOCIETY: FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND EXTREMIST SPEECH IN AMERICA (1986); DONALD DOWNS, NAZIS IN SKOKIE: FREEDOM, COMMUNITY, AND THE FIRST AMENDMENT (1985); ARYEH NEIER: AMERICAN NAZIS, THE SKOKIE CASE, AND THE RISKS OF FREEDOM (1979); Raphael Cohen-Almagor,  Harm Principle, Offense Principle, and the Skokie Affair, 41 POLITICAL STUDIES 453 (1993),  reprinted in  HATE SPEECH AND THE CONSTITUTION,  supra  note 28, at 277-94; Daniel A. Farber,  Civilizing Public Discourse: An Essay on Professor Bickel, Justice Harlan, and the Enduring Significance of  Cohen v. California, 1980 DUKE LAW JOURNAL 283. back
  • MEIKLEJOHN,  supra  note 18, at 69-70. back
  • For the latter argument, see BOLLINGER,  supra  note 35. back
  • One useful way to explore this question is to ask whether we believe that it is actually desirable that such views be publicly expressed, in the sense that the values underlying free speech and other rights are best served if those who hold such views openly express them, rather than keeping those views to themselves. Meiklejohn, for example, argues that if political views are "responsibly entertained by anyone, we, the voters, need to hear them"; such views "must be expressed, not because they are valid, but because they are relevant." MEIKLEJOHN,  supra  note 18, at 28. Mill discusses the search for truth in similar terms. MILL, supra  note 20, at 43-44. It seems highly doubtful, however, that we would apply this position to public hate speech. Instead, we would be more likely to say that such speech is so inconsistent with the respect owed to others and with the requirements of reasonable discussion that it is improper to introduce it into public discourse, regardless of whether there is a right to do so. We would regard the disappearance of hate speech as a gain rather than a loss for public discussion. If this is true, then it is clear that the value of public hate speech does not outweigh the injuries it causes. back
  • An example is provided by the facts of Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), in which a dozen Klansmen gathered on private party to burn crosses and make racist and anti-Semitic speeches. back
  • For a similar position, see Mari J. Matsuda,  Public Response to Racist Speech: Considering the Victim's Story,   in  MATSUDA ET AL.,  supra  note 28, at 40-41. back
  • Steven J. Heyman

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Good Essay Topics on Freedom of Expression

freedom of expression today essay

  • The Philosophical Treatises Place: Why Freedom of Expression First and Foremost?
  • Increasing China’s Social Network Sites’ Expression Freedom
  • Freedom of Expression vs. the Confidentiality of Superstars
  • Educators’ Freedom of Expression versus Technologies
  • Relationship between States’ Human Rights, Democracy and Expression Freedom
  • What is Freedom of Expression? an Analysis
  • Education, Liberty, and Citizens’ Right to Freedom of Expression
  • Discrimination and the Freedom of Expression Debate
  • Students and Freedom of Expression in Academia
  • The Argument from John Stuart Mill for Free Expression
  • First Amendment and Freedom of Expression: Their Relationship
  • How Internet Censorship Businesses across the globe and Violates Freedom of Expression
  • Human Decency and Media Freedom of Expression
  • How African Americans’ Perceptions and Freedom of Expression Evolved
  • The Conflict between Censorship of the Internet and Freedom
  • John Mill: The Value of Expression Freedom
  • Advancing the Freedom of Expression Rights Through Marilyn Manson
  • André Gide, a Nobel Prize winner, on the Value of Free Expression
  • Obscene Language and the Legality of Freedom of Expression
  • The Good and the Bad of Freedom of Expression
  • Changing the Way, We Think About Risky: Queer Temporalities, Teen Sexting, and the Right to Free Expression

Most Interesting Freedom of Expression Topics to Write About

  • Opinions of Scholars and Philosophers on Freedom of Expression
  • Should Creatives be Granted Unlimited Freedom?
  • The Connection That Exists Better Social Change and Freedom of Expression
  • An Examination of the Supreme Court Cases in Line with the Freedom of Expression
  • The Uprising between Data Protection and Freedom of Expression
  • The Lingering Dispute in Relations to Proscribing Books in the Context of Freedom of Expression
  • The Argument between Placing Regulatory Laws on Music and the Freedom of Expression
  • The Initial Modification to the Laws on the Freedom of Expression
  • The Moral Standpoint of Making Publicity with the Freedom of Expression
  • Three Basic Assumptions of the Justification of the Freedom of Expression
  • The Delicate Equilibrium between the Freedom of Expression and Censorship Plans in the U.S
  • Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression for Teachers and Their Student
  • Connecting Freedom of Expression and the Right to Education
  • The Situations When the Limits on Freedom of Expression be Enforced
  • The Uniqueness of Freedom of Expression in Universities
  • A Scrutiny of Freedom of Expression in Malaysia
  • Should There be Total Freedom of Speech and Expression
  • A Detailed Review of the Characteristics of Freedom of Expression in Turkey
  • Freedom of Expression as a Human Natural Right
  • Trial by Media: Freedom of Expression in Contemporary Technological Dispensation

Freedom of Speech Essay Topics

  • Personal and Group Rights to Freedom of Speech
  • Limits on the Right to Free Speech
  • Consequences of Internet Censorship
  • Freedom of Speech’s Historical Roots
  • The Right and Wrong to Free Speech
  • Governance and Speech Freedom
  • Informational Freedom in the Internet Age
  • Academic Independence and Freedom of Expression
  • Liberalism and Speech Freedom
  • Speech Rights in the US

Simple & Easy Freedom of Speech Essay Titles

  • The Freedom of Speech, Media Autonomy, and Legal Appeal
  • The Methods through which the First Constitutional Review Enforces the Freedom of Speech
  • The Freedom of Speech, and Arms Possession Rights
  • The Misinterpretation of Hate Speech and its Relations with the Freedom of Speech in our First Constitution Review
  • Boundaries on Constitutional Rights on Freedom of Speech
  • Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression for Lecturers and the Students
  • Restrictive Laws on the Internet will not Ensure Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of Speech under America’s Constitution
  • An Evaluation of the Demerits of Freedom of Speech in Slack Activism
  • An Illustration of Freedom of Speech as One of the Most Cogent Freedoms
  • How Restriction Policies in The Media is Putting A Strain on Our Freedom of Speech
  • A Scrutiny of Freedom of Speech and its Punishments
  • The Impacts of Technology on the Right of Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of Speech: Missouri Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. Kansas City
  • Difficulties Associated with Restricting Freedom of Speech
  • In What Way Does the Freedom of Speech and its Explanation Influence
  • Relenting on Freedom of Speech- Restrictions on Hate Sites
  • Freedom of Speech, Faith, and the American Vision
  • The Freedom of Speech all over the World Wide Web
  • Freedom of Speech: Should There Be Policies That Limits Speech in the U.S Democracy
  • A Debate in Support of the Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press in Academic Institute
  • Freedom of Speech and Vicious Video Games
  • The Significance of Freedom of Speech to the Advancement of Society

Most Interesting Freedom of Speech Topics to Write About

  • The Amendment not Covered by the Freedom Of expression Clause
  • Should Freedom of Speech Be Restricted?
  • Why Myanmar Should Enjoy the Same Freedom of Speech Level of protection as the United States
  • Evaluation of the Web and Freedom Of speech in the United States of America
  • First Amendment protections for freedom of speech
  • Rewards of Freedom of Speech
  • Comparison of Malaysia and China’s Levels of speech Freedom
  • The Threshold between Freedom of Speech and Hate Speech
  • One of the Fundamental Tenets of a Democracy is Freedom of Speech.
  • Protect Freedom of Speech, Stop Censorship of the internet
  • The First Amendment’s Contribution to American Freedom of Speech
  • How Online Media Use in China makes Speech Freedom Feasible
  • The Value of Speech Freedom in Higher Education
  • The Abuse of Free Speech on the Internet and Hate Mail
  • Comparing Speech Freedom and Private Property
  • The Value of Speech Freedom in Colleges
  • Speech Freedom and its Legal Boundaries
  • Freedom of Speech as a Regional and Global Human Right,
  • The Value of Upholding and Safeguarding the Right to Free Expression
  • A Description of the Significance of Free Speech in the United States
  • The Battle for Internet Free Speech under the Communication Decency Act
  • Speaking Freely About Students’ Rights in School
  • How Extensive Should the Right to Free Expression be?
  • Journalism and Speech Freedom
  • The U.S. Constitution and Digital Freedom of Speech
  • “Freedom of speech refers to the Freedom to Cause Offence.”

Research Questions About Freedom of Speech

  • Does the Law Relate to Indecency Limits of Freedom of Speech?
  • Is Freedom of Speech a Constitutional Right in New Zealand?
  • What Should be the Scope of Freedom of Speech?
  • Is Freedom of Speech a Constitutional Right in South Korea?
  • How the First Constitution Review Guides Freedom of Speech?
  • Does the Freedom of Speech Connotes Speaking without Caution?
  • In What Way Do You Infringe on Freedom of Speech?
  • What is Mill’s Four Major Supportive Points in Advocating for Freedom of Speech?
  • What Breaches the Freedom of Speech?
  • What are the Negative Effects of Freedom of Speech?
  • Are there Restrictions to Freedom of Speech?
  • Why is Freedom of Speech not a Constitutional Right in Australia?
  • What are the Three Limits to Freedom of Speech?
  • How is Freedom of Speech Misused?
  • Who Gains and Who Gets Deprived of Freedom of Speech?
  • Is Freedom of Speech Available in the Media?
  • What are the Breaches of Freedom of Speech in Social Media?
  • Does Social Media Give Support to Freedom of Speech?
  • How is Freedom of Speech Antagonistic?
  • Where is Freedom of Speech not Constitutional?
  • Is the USA the only Country with Freedom of Speech Embedded in its Laws?
  • Is the Freedom of Speech a Constitutional Right in India?
  • Who Postulated the Freedom of Speech?
  • To What End was the Freedom of Speech Created?
  • Who Advocated for Freedom of Speech?

Simple & Easy Forecasting Essay Topics

Dyscalculia: everything you need to know.

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  • Freedom Today Essay Examples

What exactly is freedom today and how does it affect us? The Oxford English Dictionary defines freedom as The state of being able to act without hindrance or restraint, liberty of action (524). More often than not, people do not take the time to realize all of the freedoms in existence around the world today. Bronislaw Malinowski states that Freedom is the most dynamic, essential, and general factor in the problems of to-day (22). Take a moment and realize the importance of freedom based upon the many struggles today and in the past for this ideal. Many major campaigns, wars, and conflicts have been driven by the conquest for freedom. The definition of freedom can be explained best using the literary concepts of description, exemplification, and negation. Freedom is a very complicated word to define in any one way. Sometimes the ideal is thought of as the driving force of the cultural process. It presents many challenges in our direction (22).

The concept of freedom has been fought for by many groups of people including Americans and is an ideal that is very dear to many peoples hearts. The basic word freedom is appealing to most cultures emotionally and is used very often in political speech (23). It can be interpreted various ways because there are so many freedoms that are available to discuss and consult. If people were not allowed basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech, the world would be a drastically different place to live in. Malinowski wrote, Freedom is a symbol which stands for a sublime and powerful ideal. The same symbol, however, may become a dangerous weapon in the hands of the enemies of freedom (24). Indeed, freedom is quite powerful and when the wrong person possesses the power, it can become very limiting upon societys basic freedoms. Bronislaw Malinowski wrote, Freedom can be defined as the conditions necessary and sufficient for the formation of a purpose, its translation into effective action through organized cultural instrumentalities, and the full enjoyment of the results of such activity (25). It is true that many prerequisites must be met to get a freedom established.

Freedom has never come easily and most likely never will for anyone or any place. Many people have to join and fight to obtain the freedom required. In the past, freedom has been thought of as a fighting word. In todays society, it is considered more of an honorific word. People with great freedom in their lives are always proud and delighted at the achievement. Many countries have large demands for more freedom, but have not been capable of acquiring it. Whether we turn to Japan or Ceylon, to West Germany, Latin America, or the new African states, we find discussion ragingsometimes not confined to wordsover the nature, meaning, implications, limits, and justifications of freedom (Hook 2). There are certain concepts that can be compared to freedom, but are not the same in true meaning. The relationship between freedom and wisdom could be compared quite easily (13). While wisdom is related more to intelligence, freedom is related to independence and sovereignty. Sidney Hook states that All choice of freedoms commits us ultimately to an ethical position (13).

This is stating that once a group of people has a certain freedom declared to them, they then have a standing position about the issue. Across the world, many people desire to have all freedom possible. It is not reasonable to ask for the freedom to do anything that is wanted, because it is impossible to have all freedoms (10). If all freedoms were granted worldwide, civilization would eventually turn into chaos. Freedom is based upon culture and daily expectations. People cannot live without any type of freedom at all. The reason freedom is sought after so often is that not being free can be a painful and unpleasant experience. Look back at the days of slavery in the United States. Although this is something that everyone would like to forget about, freedom was fought for among our own culture. This is definitely a defining point of freedom. In the end, the definition of freedom boils down to being able to act with liberty and without hindrance to a certain action (OED). We should all have our own definition of freedom that comes from our heart based upon our cultures. Bibliography Works Cited Freedom. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. Hook, Sidney. The Paradoxes of Freedom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. Malinowski, Bronislaw. Freedom and Civilization. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1944.

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Denmark Moves to Ban Quran Burnings After Muslim Outrage

Danish and Swedish authorities have struggled to balance free speech with growing anger that security officials say has elevated the risk of terrorist attacks.

Three male officials in suits sit at a table facing reporters.

By Aaron Boxerman

Reporting from London

Denmark’s government said on Friday that it would move to criminalize the public mistreatment of religious objects, setting aside free-speech concerns with what one minister called a “targeted intervention” after a spate of public Quran desecrations caused furors in many Muslim-majority countries.

Those found guilty of mistreating an object with major religious significance could be fined or sentenced to up to two years in prison, according to a draft of a bill published by the Danish Justice Ministry. Danish coalition officials said they could enact the policy as soon as the end of the year if it is approved by Parliament.

Both Denmark and neighboring Sweden have struggled to balance respect for free expression with the diplomatic fallout of the desecrations. Governments in many Muslim-majority countries have issued withering condemnations, and authorities in both countries have said that the risk of terrorist attacks has risen in recent months, posing a threat to national security.

After a small group of Danish nationalists filmed themselves burning what they said was a Quran late last month, hundreds of Iraqi protesters tried to storm Denmark’s embassy in Baghdad before security forces dispersed them. On Sunday, the Iranian authorities summoned Danish and Swedish diplomats to chastise them over another series of desecrations in both countries.

Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen told reporters that there had been more than 170 demonstrations, including some with Quran burnings, in front of the embassies of Muslim-majority countries and elsewhere in Denmark over the past month. The protests, which are generally small, often denounce Islam and Muslim immigration.

“This has put Denmark in a difficult foreign-policy situation,” Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, the country’s deputy prime minister, said on Friday. “And the government cannot just sit and listen to that.”

Justice Minister Peter Hummelgaard characterized the proposal as a “targeted intervention” against Quran burnings that “damage the security of Danes both abroad and at home.” Presenting the measure on Friday, Mr. Hummelgaard pledged that a “very broad framework” for freedom of expression would remain in Denmark.

He said the proposed law would not apply to clothing or satirical drawings, for example, and would not constrain criticism of religion. “I think there are more civilized ways to express your opinions than by burning things down,” he said.

Danish critics immediately slammed the bill as an assault on the country’s historically strong protections for free speech and as a capitulation to violence. The Liberal Alliance, which holds 14 of 179 seats in Parliament, said it was “a sad day for Danes and a good day for extremists.”

“Congratulations, Al Qaeda and Co.,” the party said on Instagram .

Jacob Kaarsbo, an analyst at Think Tank Europa in Copenhagen, called the bill “an effort to reach out to the Muslim mainstream” and tamp down tensions by showing Muslim-majority countries that Denmark was taking the problem seriously.

“It’s ultimately very few people that are behind this, but they’re having an outsized impact,” Mr. Kaarsbo said, referring to the Quran desecrations.

This is far from Denmark’s first brush with controversy surrounding the boundaries of free speech and Islam. In 2005, a Danish newspaper published several cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that many Muslims considered blasphemous and that set off violent protests and attacks.

Far-right Scandinavian provocateurs have burned the Quran occasionally for years to signal their opposition to Muslim immigration into countries like Denmark. But tensions this year began to rise after Rasmus Paludan, a right-wing nationalist and dual citizen of Sweden and Denmark, set a copy of the Quran ablaze in January.

In late June, Salwan Momika, an Iraqi immigrant to Sweden, burned a Quran outside a mosque in Stockholm. A Muslim man was later granted a permit to burn a Torah and a Bible outside the Israeli Embassy in Stockholm but did not follow through. He later told reporters that his intention had been not to burn the scriptures but to underscore the abhorrent nature of such acts.

The governments of many Muslim countries have fiercely denounced Denmark and Sweden for allowing the burning of Qurans. Both governments have repeatedly condemned the desecrations but said they were constrained by free-speech laws.

Sweden, which hopes to join NATO , fears that the controversy could delay its membership. Turkey’s foreign minister said last month that Stockholm’s inability to “prevent provocations” had raised questions about Sweden’s credentials for membership.

In mid-July, hundreds of people stormed the Swedish Embassy in Baghdad and set parts of it on fire over the Swedish government’s decision to allow the desecrations. Iraq also expelled the Swedish ambassador and directed his Iraqi counterpart to withdraw from the Iraqi Embassy in Stockholm.

Last month, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson of Sweden described the security situation there as the most serious since World War II. This month, Sweden’s domestic security agency raised its terrorism threat level to “high,” the second-most severe designation in a five-point scale.

Jasmina Nielsen contributed reporting from Copenhagen.

How Sound of Freedom Became the Surprise Box Office Hit of the Summer

A mid the hype over the cinematic double whammy of "Barbenheimer" , another movie has crept up in the box office rankings this summer: Sound of Freedom .

Directed and co-written by Alejandro Monteverde, Sound of Freedom is a low-budget action thriller about a U.S. federal agent who goes rogue on a mission to rescue children in Latin America from sex trafficking. Since its release on July 4, it's raked in over $180 million at the domestic box office , outperforming big-budget features like Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny , and making it the highest-grossing indie film since 2019’s Parasite .

Billed as a story about the real-life Tim Ballard, a former special agent for the Department of Homeland Security and founder of the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.), Sound of Freedom has become mired in controversy over criticisms that it features misleading depictions of child exploitation and plays into right-wing conspiracy theories associated with the QAnon movement . These associations have been perpetuated by both Ballard and his on-screen counterpart, Jim Caviezel, who has been a prominent supporter of QAnon for years.

The film's distributor, Angel Studios, has denied that Sound of Freedom is political or connected to QAnon. “Anybody who watches this film knows that this film is not about conspiracy theories," Angel CEO Neal Harmon said in an interview . "It’s not about politics.”

While Sound of Freedom doesn't take a direct political stance or invoke QAnon, the fervent support for the film from the right has resulted it in being labeled "MAGA-friendly" and embraced by both mainstream conservatives and far-right conspiracy theorists. Former President Donald Trump recently hosted a screening of the film at his golf club in New Jersey, while Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Tim Scott have publicly praised it.

Here's how Sound of Freedom became the controversial hit of the summer.

Sound of Freedom 's origin story

In August, Monteverde—best known for writing and directing the 2006 drama Bella , which won the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival—began addressing the controversies around Sound of Freedom , calling the association with QAnon "ridiculous" in an interview with Variety .

“The origin [of the film] has been avoided, purposely or accidentally, in the media,” he said. “The origin will answer a lot of these misconceptions on the film.”

According to the filmmaker, he began the project that became Sound of Freedom in 2015, two years before QAnon emerged. After watching a network news segment on child sex trafficking, Monteverde said he was inspired to start writing a screenplay on the subject. The resulting script, originally titled Mogul , was "purely fictionalized," he said.

However, after the film’s producer, Eduardo Verástegui, met Ballard, the project came to center on the time that Ballard spent deployed as an undercover operative for the U.S. Child Sex Tourism Jump Team while assigned to Homeland Security's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for over a decade prior to 2013.

"All I wanted was to present a question about the problem: human trafficking, child trafficking, child sexual exploitation," Monteverde said. "How bad the problem is. We shot in 2018. In 2019, it was a completely finished film."

Verástegui—who plays a role in Sound of Freedom in addition to producing—was also responsible for rallying the investors who supplied $14.5 million in funding for the film. At Sound of Freedom 's premiere, he told the Washington Examiner that after he heard Ballard's story, he was compelled to turn it into a film. “I am a filmmaker," he said. "I ask myself, 'What can I do?' A movie. I have a weapon of mass instruction, and inspiration.”

Verástegui later told the New York Post that while he doesn't understand the criticism surrounding the movie, he sees it as a blessing in disguise. “They are doing us a favor, the more they attack the movie, people show up," he said. " Sound of Freedom is saving lives."

The film was initially picked up for distribution by Fox Latin America, but ended up in production limbo for nearly five years after Fox was acquired by Disney in 2019. Disney allegedly declined to release the film , but ultimately allowed the filmmakers to buy back the rights.

After the movie was further delayed by the pandemic and passed on for distribution by other major studios and streamers, the Sound of Freedom team agreed to a deal with Angel Studios in March 2023.

What is Angel Studios and how did it get involved?

Founded in 2021 by Mormon brothers Neal and Jeff Harmon, Angel Studios is a Utah-based media company that specializes in crowdfunding original films and TV series that "amplify light." In recent years, the studio has found success with The Chosen , a multi-season series about the life of Jesus touted by Angel as the "biggest crowdfunded project in TV history," and faith-based films like His Only Son and Testament .

To distribute and market Sound of Freedom , Angel raised $5 million from nearly 7,000 crowd investors in exchange for shares of the film's revenue. On August 16, the studio announced in a press release that it repaid its backers their original investment plus a 20% profit.

Monteverde told Variety that the Harmons took a unique approach to promoting Sound of Freedom .

"They just had a completely different way of marketing a film that I’ve never seen," he said. "I became a pain. And they told me, 'Alejandro, let us do our work. You have to trust us.' And we made a deal."

To drum up ticket sales, Angel added a clip at the end of the film's trailer where Caviezel directly addresses the audience and encourages viewers to preorder their tickets to "send the message that God's children are no longer for sale." Caviezel also comes on screen at the end of the movie itself to urge audiences to participate in Angel's "Pay It Forward" program by buying an extra ticket for someone "who might not otherwise see [the film]."

This has led to questions about how many of those extra tickets are actually being used and whether they're over-inflating the movie's sales figures. Jared Geesey, Angel's senior vice president of global distribution, told the Hollywood Reporter that the "vast majority" of tickets are being bought directly by moviegoers and that only redeemed donated tickets are counted when Angel reports its box office grosses. Monteverde estimated that the Pay It Forward program accounts for less than 10% of Sound of Freedom 's overall box-office earnings.

“We do not break out Pay It Forward tickets versus regular tickets because they’re the same thing," Geesey said. "A ticket is a ticket, whether you paid for it or someone else paid for it.”

According to the studio's website, money from unredeemed tickets may be used to pay for streaming Sound of Freedom in the Angel Studios app or "to help the filmmaker create additional content."

Angel did not respond to TIME's request for comment.

Controversy takes over

Much of the controversy surrounding Sound of Freedom stems from Caviezel and Ballard, who have openly supported QAnon.

Caviezel, best known for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ , has given speeches and interviews in which he promotes the baseless conspiracy theory that a shadowy international cabal of top Democratic politicians and famous liberal elites are kidnapping children, forcing them into sex trafficking, and harvesting the chemical adrenochrome from their blood to consume as an elixir of youth. The conspiracy theory, which has anti-Semitic roots, has been debunked numerous times by media outlets and scientific communities .

Meanwhile, Ballard is caught up in his own web of controversy. In addition to voicing support for false QAnon-associated claims, Ballard's work as an anti-trafficking activist has also come under scrutiny.

Days after Sound of Freedom was released, Vice published a lengthy investigation into how Ballard has a history of self-mythologizing and embellishing his exploits while O.U.R. has "spent years making big, often unprovable claims about its paramilitary missions and role in rescuing trafficked kids."

"A number of O.U.R.’s claims about its work are dramatically overstated or without clear documentary evidence," the piece read. "People who have volunteered for O.U.R. have raised concerns that it could actually have been creating demand for trafficking victims, by going to foreign countries on undercover 'missions' that, at times, have seemed to consist of walking around bars and sex clubs asking for underage girls."

Later that month, Vice reported that Ballard had quietly parted ways with O.U.R. ahead of Sound of Freedom 's debut. The circumstances surrounding Ballard's departure were unclear.

"Tim Ballard has stepped away from Operation Underground Railroad prior to the launch of the film, Sound of Freedom ," O.U.R. said in a statement provided to TIME. "The operations, tactics, and methodologies depicted in Sound of Freedom occurred in the early days of our organization, nearly nine years ago, and since then have evolved dramatically. The film represents just a small fraction of the operations, training, and aftercare support that we provide in the U.S. and around the world today."

Sound of Freedom itself has also been criticized by anti-trafficking experts for providing a "false perception" of child trafficking and promoting "rescue" tactics that may actually put real victims in danger.

What's next for Sound of Freedom

Following its success in the U.S., Sound of Freedom is set to roll out overseas in 21 different markets, including the U.K., Australia, Spain, South Africa and a number of countries in Latin America.

According to Geesey, Angel Studios believes the film will ultimately cross the $200 million mark in North America as it begins what is expected to be a robust international launch. Sound of Freedom is currently the 10th highest-grossing of the year in the U.S., outranking blockbusters like Dial of Destiny , Dead Reckoning Part One , Transformers: Rise of the Beasts , Creed III , and Fast X .

“Since Sound of Freedom launched in the U.S., demand has been building around the world in dozens of regions and languages,” he told the Hollywood Reporter . “Child trafficking is a global issue, and we hope to build on the incredible momentum here in the states and share the film’s powerful message worldwide.”

Angel has also reportedly been shopping the first exclusive streaming rights for Sound of Freedom at both subscription services and ad-supported streamers.

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