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Freedom of Speech

This entry explores the topic of free speech. It starts with a general discussion of freedom in relation to speech and then moves on to examine one of the first and best defenses of free speech, based on the harm principle. This provides a useful starting point for further digressions on the subject. The discussion moves on from the harm principle to assess the argument that speech can be limited because it causes offense rather than direct harm. I then examine arguments that suggest speech can be limited for reasons of democratic equality. I finish with an examination of paternalistic and moralistic reasons against protecting speech, and a reassessment of the harm principle.

1. Introduction: Boundaries of the Debate

2.1 john stuart mill's harm principle, 2.2 mill's harm principle and pornography, 2.3 mill's harm principle and hate speech, 2.4 responses to the harm principle, 3.1 joel feinberg's offense principle, 3.2 pornography and the offense principle, 3.3 hate speech and the offense principle, 4.1 democratic citizenship and pornography, 4.2 democratic citizenship and hate speech, 4.3 paternalistic justification for limiting speech, 5. back to the harm principle, 6. conclusion, other internet resources, related entries.

The topic of free speech is one of the most contentious issues in liberal societies. If liberty of expression is not highly valued, as has often been the case, there is no problem; freedom of expression is simply curtailed in favor of other values. It becomes a volatile issue when it is highly valued because only then do the limitations placed upon it become controversial. The first thing to note in any sensible discussion of freedom of speech is that it will have to be limited. Every society places some limits on the exercise of speech because it always takes place within a context of competing values. In this sense, Stanley Fish is correct when he says that there is no such thing as free speech (in the sense of unlimited speech). Free speech is simply a useful term to focus our attention on a particular form of human interaction and the phrase is not meant to suggest that speech should never be limited. One does not have to fully agree with Fish when he says , “free speech in short, is not an independent value but a political prize” (1994,102) but it is the case that no society has existed where speech has not been limited to some extent. Haworth (1998) makes a similar point when he suggests that a right to freedom of speech is not something we have, not something we own, in the same way as we possess arms and legs.

Alexander and Horton (1984) agree. They note that “speech” encapsulates many different activities: speaking, writing, singing, acting, burning flags, yelling on the street corner, advertising, threats, slander and so on. One reason for thinking that speech is not special simpiciter is that some of these forms of communication are more important than others and hence require different levels of protection. For example, the freedom to criticize a government is generally thought to be more important than the freedom of an artist to offend her audience. If two speech acts clash (when yelling prevents a political speech) a decision has to be made to prioritize one over the other, which means that there can be no unlimited right to free speech. For example, Alexander and Horton (1984) claim that arguments defending speech on democratic grounds have many parts. One is a claim that the public needs a great deal of information in order to make informed decisions. Another is that because government is the servant of the people, it should not be allowed to censor them. Such arguments show that one of the main reasons for justifying free speech (political speech) is important, not for its own sake but because it allows us to exercise another important value (democracy). Whatever reasons we offer to protect speech can also be used to show why some speech is not special. If speech is defended because it promotes autonomy, we no longer have grounds for protecting speech acts that undermine this value. If our defence of speech is that it is crucial to a well-functioning democracy, we have no reason to defend speech that is irrelevant to, or undermines, this goal. And if we agree with John Stuart Mill (1978) that speech should be protected because it leads to the truth, there seems no reason to protect the speech of anti-vaccers or creationists.

Speech is important because we are socially situated and it makes little sense to say that Robinson Crusoe has a right to free speech. It only becomes necessary to talk of such a right within a social setting, and appeals to an abstract and absolute right to free speech hinder rather than help the debate. At a minimum, speech will have to be limited for the sake of order. If we all speak at once, we end up with an incoherent noise. Without some rules and procedures we cannot have a conversation at all and consequently speech has to be limited by protocols of basic civility.

It is true that many human rights documents give a prominent place to the right to speech and conscience, but such documents also place limits on what can be said because of the harm and offense that unlimited speech can cause, (I will discuss this in more detail later). Outside of the United States of America speech does not tend to have a specially protected status and it has to compete with other rights claims for our allegiance. John Stuart Mill, one of the great defenders of free speech, summarized these points in On Liberty , where he suggests that a struggle always takes place between the competing demands of authority and liberty. He claimed that we cannot have the latter without the former:

All that makes existence valuable to anyone depends on the enforcement of restraints upon the actions of other people. Some rules of conduct, therefore, must be imposed—by law in the first place, and by opinion on many things which are not fit subjects for the operation of law. (1978, 5)

The task, therefore, is not to argue for an unlimited domain of free speech; such a concept cannot be defended. Instead, we need to decide how much value we place on speech in relation to other important ideals such as privacy, security, democratic equality and the prevention of harm and there is nothing inherent to speech that suggests it must always win out in competition with these values. Speech is part of a package deal of social goods: “speech, in short, is never a value in and of itself but is always produced within the precincts of some assumed conception of the good” (Fish, 1994, 104). In this essay, I will examine some conceptions of the good that are deemed to be acceptable limitations on speech. I will start with the harm principle and then move on to other more encompassing arguments for limiting speech.

Before we do this, however, the reader might wish to disagree with the above claims and warn of the dangers of the “slippery slope.” As Frederick Schauer (1985) has demonstrated, slippery slope arguments make the claim that a current acceptable change (he calls this the instant case) to the status quo regarding speech will lead to some intolerable future state of affairs (what he calls the danger case) once the instant case prohibiting speech is introduced. The assumption is that the instant case is acceptable; otherwise it would be critiqued in its own right. The complaint is that a change from the status quo to the instant case will lead to unwanted future limitations on speech and should be avoided (even if a change to the instant case would be immediately desirable). The slippery slope argument has to make a clear distinction between the instant and the danger case. If the former was part of the latter then it is not a slippery slope argument but simply an assertion about the unwarranted breadth of the instant case. The claim being made is that a change to an acceptable instant case that is distinct from the danger case should nevertheless be prohibited because a change from the status quo to the instant case will necessarily transport us to the danger case.

As Schuer says this is not very compelling because it needs to be demonstrated, rather than merely stated, that the move from the status quo is so much more likely to lead to the danger case. Part of the problem is that slippery slope arguments are often presented in a way that suggests we can be on or off the slope. In fact, no such choice exists: we are necessarily on the slope whether we like it or not, and the task is always to decide how far up or down we choose to go, not whether we should step off the slope altogether. We need to keep in mind that the slippery-slope claim is not that the proposed instant case will lead to minor changes in the future, but that a small change now will have drastic and tyrannical consequences. The slippery-slope argument seems to suggest that the instant case is so flawed that any change to it from the status quo (which again, is a position already on the slope) puts us in imminent threat of sliding into the danger case. Unfortunately, the causal mechanisms for how this must necessarily happen are usually unspecified. Anyone making such claims should be willing to demonstrate how this unlikely event will happen before being taken seriously. Such a person is not simply advocating caution; she is claiming that there is an imminent risk of moving from an acceptable instant case to an unacceptable danger case. This is not to say that slippage cannot occur. One safeguard against this is to be as precise as possible in our use of language. If harm to others is our preferred stopping point on the slope, we need to specify in clear terms what counts as harm and what does not. Sometimes we will fail in this task, but precision puts brakes on the instant case and limits its capacity for sliding down the slope.

Those who support the slippery slope argument tend to make the claim that the inevitable consequence of limiting speech is a slide into censorship and tyranny. It is worth noting, however, that the slippery slope argument can be used to make the opposite point; one could argue that we should not allow any removal of government interventions (on speech or any other type of freedom) because once we do we are on the slippery slope to anarchy, the state of nature, and a life that Hobbes described in Leviathan as “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short” (1968, 186).

Another thing to note before we engage with specific arguments for limiting speech is that we are in fact free to speak as we like. Hence, freedom of speech differs from some other types of free action. If the government wants to prevent citizens engaging in certain actions, riding motor bikes for example, it can limit their freedom to do so by making sure that such vehicles are no longer available; current bikes could be destroyed and a ban can be placed on future imports. Freedom of speech is a different case. A government can limit some forms of free expression by banning books, plays, films etc. but it cannot make it impossible to say certain things. The only thing it can do is punish people after they have spoken. This means that we are free to speak in a way that we are not free to ride outlawed motorbikes. This is an important point; if we insist that legal prohibitions remove freedom then we have to hold the incoherent position that a person was unfree at the very moment she performed a speech act. The government would have to remove our vocal cords for us to be unfree in the same way as the motorcyclist is unfree.

A more persuasive analysis suggests that the threat of a sanction makes it more difficult and potentially more costly to exercise our freedom of speech. Such sanctions take two major forms. The first, and most serious, is legal punishment by the state, which usually consists of a financial penalty, but can stretch to imprisonment (which then, of course, further restricts the persons free speech). The second threat of sanction comes from social disapprobation. People will often refrain from making public statements because they fear the ridicule and moral outrage of others. For example, one could expect to be publicly condemned if one made racist comments during a public lecture at a university. Usually it is the first type of sanction that catches our attention but, as we will see, John Stuart Mill provides a strong warning about the chilling effect of the latter form of social control.

We seem to have reached a paradoxical position. I started by claiming that there can be no such thing as a pure form of free speech: now I seem to be arguing that we are, in fact, free to say anything we like. The paradox is resolved by thinking of free speech in the following terms. I am, indeed, free to say (but not necessarily to publish) what I like, but the state and other individuals can sometimes make that freedom more or less costly to exercise. This leads to the conclusion that we can attempt to regulate speech, but we cannot prevent it if a person is undeterred by the threat of sanction. The issue, therefore, boils down to assessing how cumbersome we wish to make it for people to say certain things. I have already suggested that all societies do (correctly) make some speech more costly than others. If the reader doubts this, it might be worth considering what life would be like with no sanctions on libelous statements, child pornography, advertising content, and releasing state secrets. The list could go on.

The conclusion to be drawn is that the problem we face is deciding where, not whether, to place limits on speech, and the next sections look at some possible solutions to this puzzle.

2. The Harm Principle and Free Speech

Given that Mill presented one of the first, and still perhaps the most famous liberal defense of free speech, I will focus on his arguments in this essay and use them as a springboard for a more general discussion of free expression. In the footnote at the beginning of Chapter II of On Liberty , Mill makes a very bold statement:

If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered. (1978, 15)

This is a very strong defense of free speech; Mill tells us that any doctrine should be allowed the light of day no matter how immoral it may seem to everyone else. And Mill does mean everyone:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (1978, 16)

Such liberty should exist with every subject matter so that we have “absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral or theological” (1978, 11). Mill claims that the fullest liberty of expression is required to push our arguments to their logical limits, rather than the limits of social embarrassment. Such liberty of expression is necessary, he suggests, for the dignity of persons. If liberty of expression is stifled, the price paid is “a sort of intellectual pacification” that sacrifices “ the entire moral courage of the human mind” (1978, 31).

These are powerful claims for freedom of speech, but as I noted above, Mill also suggests that we need some rules of conduct to regulate the actions of members of a political community. The limitation he places on free expression is “one very simple principle” (1978, 9), now usually referred to as the harm principle, which states that

…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. (1978, 9)

There is a great deal of debate about what Mill had in mind when he referred to harm; for the purposes of this essay he will be taken to mean that an action has to directly and in the first instance invade the rights of a person (Mill himself uses the term rights, despite basing the arguments in the book on the principle of utility). The limits on free speech will be very narrow because it is difficult to support the claim that most speech causes harm to the rights of others. This is the position staked out by Mill in the first two chapters of On Liberty and it is a good starting point for a discussion of free speech because it is hard to imagine a more liberal position. Liberals are usually willing to contemplate limiting speech once it can be demonstrated that it does invade the rights of others.

If we accept Mill's argument we need to ask “what types of speech, if any, cause harm?” Once we can answer this question, we have found the appropriate limits to free expression. The example Mill uses is in reference to corn dealers: he suggests that it is acceptable to claim that corn dealers starve the poor if such a view is expressed in print. It is not acceptable to make such statements to an angry mob, ready to explode, that has gathered outside the house of the corn dealer. The difference between the two is that the latter is an expression “such as to constitute…a positive instigation to some mischievous act,” (1978, 53), namely, to place the rights, and possibly the life, of the corn dealer in danger. As Daniel Jacobson (2000) notes, it is important to remember that Mill will not sanction limits to free speech simply because someone is harmed. For example, the corn dealer may suffer severe financial hardship if he is accused of starving the poor. Mill distinguishes between legitimate and illegitimate harm, and it is only when speech causes a direct and clear violation of rights that it can be limited. The fact that Mill does not count accusations of starving the poor as causing illegitimate harm to the rights of corn dealers suggests he wished to apply the harm principle sparingly. Other examples where the harm principle may apply include libel laws, blackmail, advertising blatant untruths about commercial products, advertising dangerous products to children (e.g. cigarettes), and securing truth in contracts. In most of these cases, it is possible to show that harm can be caused and that rights can be violated.

There are other instances when the harm principle has been invoked but where it is more difficult to demonstrate that rights have been violated. Perhaps the most obvious example is the debate over pornography. As Feinberg notes in Offense to Others: the Moral Limits of the Criminal Law , most attacks on pornography up to the 1970s were from social conservatives who found such material to be immoral and obscene. This type of argument has died away in recent times and the case against pornography has been taken up by some feminists who often distinguish between erotica, which is acceptable, and pornography, which is not, because it is claimed it degrades, harms, and endangers the lives of women. The harm principle can be invoked against pornography if it can be demonstrated that it violates the rights of women.

This is an approach taken by Catherine MacKinnon (1987). She takes seriously the distinction between pornography and erotica. Erotica might be explicit and create sexual arousal, but neither is grounds for complaint. Pornography would not come under attack if it did the same thing as erotica; the complaint is that it portrays women in a manner that harms them.

When pornography involves young children, most people accept that it should be prohibited because it harms persons under the age of consent (although the principle would not necessarily rule out people over the age of consent from portraying minors). It has proved more difficult to make the same claim for consenting adults. It is difficult to know if the people who appear in books, magazines, films, videos and on the internet are being physically harmed. If they are we then need to show why this is sufficiently different from other forms of harmful employment that is not prohibited, such as hard manual labour, or very dangerous jobs. Much of the work in pornography seems to be demeaning and unpleasant but the same can be said for many forms of work and again it is unclear why the harm principle can be used to single out pornography. MacKinnon's (1987) claim that women who make a living through pornography are sexual slaves seems to exaggerate the case. If conditions in the pornography industry are particularly bad, stronger regulation rather than prohibition might be a better option, particularly as the latter will not make the industry go away.

It is also difficult to demonstrate that pornography results in harm to women as a whole. Very few people would deny that violence against women is abhorrent and an all too common feature of our society, but how much of this is caused by pornography? MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, (1981) and many others, have attempted to show a causal link but this has proven challenging because one needs to show that a person who would not rape, batter or otherwise violate the rights of women was caused to do so through exposure to pornography. Caroline West provides a useful overview of the literature and suggests that even though pornography might not dispose most men to rape, it might make it more likely for those men who are already so inclined. She uses the analogy of smoking. We have good grounds for saying that smoking makes cancer more likely even though smoking is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for causing cancer. One possible problem with this analogy is that we have very powerful evidence that smoking does significantly increase the possibility of cancer; the evidence suggesting that viewing pornography leads men (already inclined) to rape women is not as robust.

If pornographers were exhorting their readers to commit violence and rape, the case for prohibition would be much stronger, but they tend not to do this, just as films that depict murder do not actively incite the audience to mimic what they see on the screen. For the sake of argument let us grant that the consumption of pornography does lead some men to commit acts of violence. Such a concession might not prove to be decisive. The harm principle might be a necessary, but it is not a sufficient reason for censorship. If pornography causes a small percentage of men to act violently we still need an argument for why the liberty of all consumers of pornography (men and women) has to be curtailed because of the violent actions of a few. We have overwhelming evidence that consuming alcohol causes a lot of violence (against women and men) but this does not mean that alcohol should be prohibited. Very few people reach this conclusion despite the clarity of the evidence. Further questions need to be answered before a ban is justified. How many people are harmed? What is the frequency of the harm? How strong is the evidence that A is causing B? Would prohibition limit the harm and if so, by how much? Would censorship cause problems greater than the harm it is meant to negate? Can the harmful effects be prevented by measures other than prohibition?

There are other non-physical harms that also have to be taken into consideration. MacKinnon argues that pornography causes harm because it exploits, oppresses, subordinates and undermines the civil rights of women, including their right to free speech. A permissive policy on pornography has the effect of prioritizing the right to speech of pornographers over the right to speech of women. MacKinnon's claim is that pornography silences women because it presents them as inferior beings and sex objects who are not to be taken seriously. Even if pornography does not cause violence, it still leads to discrimination, domination and rights violations. She also suggests that because pornography offers a misleading and derogatory view of women, it is libelous. Along with Andrea Dworkin, MacKinnon drafted a Minneapolis Council Ordinance in 1983 that allowed women to take civil action against pornographers. They defined pornography as:

…the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures or words that also includes women dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; enjoying pain or humiliation or rape; being tied up, cut up, mutilated, bruised, or physically hurt; in postures of sexual submission or servility or display; reduced to body parts, penetrated by objects or animals, or presented in scenarios of degradation, injury, torture; shown as filthy or inferior; bleeding, bruised or hurt in a context which makes these conditions sexual (1987, 176).

Such arguments have so far not led to the prohibition of pornography (which was not the intent of the Ordinance) and many liberals remain unconvinced. One reason that some doubt MacKinnon's claims is that the last twenty years have seen an explosion of pornography on the internet without a concurrent erosion of women's rights. If those arguing that pornography causes harm are right, we should expect to see a large increase in physical abuse against women and a hefty decrease in their civil rights, employment in the professions, and positions in higher education. The evidence does not seem to show this and social conditions for women today are better than 30 years ago when pornography was less prevalent. What does seem to be reasonably clear, at least in the USA, is that the increased consumption of pornography over the last 20 years has coincided with a reduction in violent crime against women, including rape. If we return to West's smoking analogy, we would have to rethink our view that smoking causes cancer if a large increase in smokers did not translate into a comparable increase in lung cancer.

The matter remains unsettled, and the lives of women might be significantly better if pornography was not around, but so far it has proven difficult to justify limiting pornography by way of the harm principle. It is important to remember that we are currently examining this issue from the perspective of Mill's formulation of the harm principle and only speech that directly violates rights should be banned. Finding pornography offensive, obscene or outrageous is not sufficient grounds for censorship. Nor does Mill's principle allow prohibition because pornography harms the viewer. The harm principle is there to prevent other-regarding not self-regarding harm.

Overall, no one has mounted a compelling case (at least as far as legislators and judges are concerned) for banning pornography (except in the case of minors) based on the concept of harm formulated by Mill.

Another difficult case is hate speech. Most liberal democracies have limitations on hate speech, but it is debatable whether these can be justified by the harm principle as formulated by Mill. One would have to show that such speech violated rights, directly and in the first instance. I am interested here in hate speech that does not advocate violence against a group or individual because such speech would be captured by Mill's harm principle. The Public Order Act 1986 in the U.K. does not require such a stringent barrier as the harm principle to prohibit speech. The Act states that “A person is guilty of an offence if he ...displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress.”

There have been several prosecutions in the U.K. that would not have happened if the harm principle governed “absolutely the dealings of society with the individual”(Mill,1978, 68). In 2001 evangelist Harry Hammond was prosecuted for the following statements: “Jesus Gives Peace, Jesus is Alive, Stop Immorality, Stop Homosexuality, Stop Lesbianism, Jesus is Lord”. For his sins he was fined 300 pounds and made to pay 395 pounds in costs. In 2010, Harry Taylor left anti-religious cartoons in the prayer-room of Liverpool's John Lennon Airport. The airport chaplain was “insulted, offended, and alarmed” by the cartoons and called the police. Taylor was prosecuted and received a six-month suspended sentence. Barry Thew wore a t-shirt hours after two women police officers were murdered near Manchester in 2012. The front of the shirt had the slogan “One less pig, perfect justice,” and on the back was written “Kill a cop for fun”. He admitted a Section 4A Public Order Offence and was sentenced to 4 months jail. Also in 2012, Liam Stacey took to twitter to mock a black professional football player who collapsed during a match. He then proceeded to racially abuse people who responded negatively to his tweet. He was sentenced to 56 days in jail. This case provoked significant commentary, most of it taking the form of slippery-slope claims that the decision would inevitably lead to Britain becoming a totalitarian state. The most recent (June 2016) case to receive public attention involves Paul Gascoigne, the former English football star, who has been charged with racially aggravated abuse after commenting, whilst on stage, that he could only make out a black man standing in a dark corner of the room when he smiled. It is doubtful that any of these examples would be captured by Mill's harm principle.

In Australia, Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 states that “It is unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, If: (a) the act is reasonably likely in all the circumstances to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group of people, and (b) the act is done because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin”. The most prominent person prosecuted under the Act is Andrew Bolt, a conservative political commentator, who was found guilty of racially vilifying nine aboriginal persons in newspaper articles in 2011. He suggested that the nine people had identified as aboriginal, despite having fair skin, for their own professional advantage. The case prompted the Tony Abbott led Liberal government into a failed attempt to change the legislation.

It should be noted that Section 18C is qualified by Section 18D (often ignored in the backlash against the Bolt decision). 18D says that

…section 18C does not render unlawful anything said or done reasonably and in good faith: (a) in the performance, exhibition or distribution of an artistic work; or (b) in the course of any statement, publication, discussion or debate made or held for any genuine academic, artistic or scientific purpose or any other genuine purpose in the public interest; or (c) in the making or publishing: (i) a fair and accurate report of any event or matter of public interest; or (ii) a fair comment on any matter of public interest if the comment is an expression of a genuine belief held by the person making the comment…

It is clear that these qualifications remove some of the teeth from Section 18C. As long as the statements are made artistically and/or in good faith, for example, they are immune from prosecution. The conclusion of the judge in the Bolt case was that none of the Section 18D exemptions applied in his case. Even with these qualifications in place, however, it seems that the Racial Discrimination Act would still be ruled out by Mill's harm principle which seems to allow people to offend, insult, and humiliate (although perhaps not intimidate) regardless of the motivation of the speaker.

The United States, precisely because it fits most closely with Mill's principle, is an outlier amongst liberal democracies when it comes to hate speech. The most famous example of this is the Nazi march through Skokie, Illinois, something that would not be allowed in many other liberal democracies. The intention was not to engage in political speech at all, but simply to march through a predominantly Jewish community dressed in storm trooper uniforms and wearing swastikas (although the Illinois Supreme Court interpreted the wearing of swastikas as “symbolic political speech”). It is clear that many people, especially those who lived in Skokie, were outraged and offended by the march, but were they harmed? There was no plan to cause physical injury and the marchers did not intend to damage property.

The main argument for prohibiting the Skokie march, based on considerations of harm, was that the march would incite a riot, thus putting the marchers in danger. The problem with this argument is that the focal point is the potential harm to the speakers and not the harm done to those who are the subject of the hate. To ban speech for this reason, i.e., for the good of the speaker, tends to undermine the basic right to free speech in the first place. If we turn our attention to members of the local community, we might want to claim that they were psychologically harmed by the march. This is much more difficult to demonstrate than harm to a person's legal rights. It seems, therefore, that Mill's argument does not allow for state intervention in this case. If we base our defense of speech on Mill's principle we will have very few prohibitions. It is only when we can show direct harm to rights, which will almost always mean when an attack is made against a specific individual or a small group of persons, that it is legitimate to impose a sanction.

One response is to suggest that the harm principle can be defined less stringently. Jeremy Waldron (2012) has made a recent attempt to do this. He draws our attention to the visual impact of hate speech through posters and signs displayed in public. Waldron argues that the harm in hate speech (the title of his book) is that it compromises the dignity of those under attack. A society where such images proliferate makes life exceedingly difficult for those targeted by hate speech. Waldron suggests that the people engaged in hate speech are saying “[t]he time for your degradation and your exclusion by the society that presently shelters you is fast approaching” (2012, 96). He claims that prohibiting such messages assures all people that they are welcome members of the community.

Waldron does not want to use hate speech legislation to punish those who hold hateful thoughts and attitudes. The goal is not to engage in thought control but to prevent harm to the social standing of certain groups in society. Liberal democratic societies are founded on ideas of equality and dignity and these are damaged by hate speech. Given this, Waldron wonders why we even need to debate the usefulness of hate speech. Mill, for example, argued that we should allow speech of this type so that our ideas do not fall into the “slumber of a decided opinion” (1978, 41). Waldron doubts that we require hate speech to prevent such an outcome.

As we have seen, Waldron is making a harm based argument but his threshold for what counts as harm is lower than Mill’s. He needs to convince us that an attack on a person's dignity constitutes a significant harm. My dignity might often be bruised by colleagues, for example, but this does not necessarily show that I have been harmed. Perhaps it is only when an attack on dignity is equivalent to threats of physical abuse that it counts as a reason for limiting speech. Waldron does not offer a lot of evidence that a permissive attitude to hate speech, at least in liberal democracies, does cause significant harm. There is no specific hate speech regulation in the United States, for example, but it is not clear that more harm occurs there than in other liberal democracies.

David Boonin (2011) is not convinced that there is a need for special hate speech legislation. He claims that hate speech does not fit within the regular categories of speech that can be prohibited. Even if he can be persuaded that it does fit, he still thinks special hate speech laws are not required because existing legislation will capture the offending speech. I will examine one example he uses to make his point. Boonin argues that threatening speech already sits within the category of speech that is rightfully prohibited. He suggests, however, that hate speech does not fall within this category because a significant amount of hate speech is not directly threatening. A group of black men, for example, will not be threatened by a racially abusive elderly white woman. He argues that this example, and others like it, show why a blanket ban on all hate speech on the grounds that it is threatening cannot be justified.

Nor is it likely, he suggests, that racist attacks by frail old ladies will contribute to an atmosphere of danger. This argument might be less persuasive. Mill’s use of the corn dealer example demonstrates how the use of language can incite violence regardless of who is speaking. But Mill’s example also shows that a blanket ban would still be unwarranted because it allows incendiary statements to be made about corn dealers under controlled conditions.

Boonin’s argument does not rest here. If it really does turn out to be the case that all hate speech is threatening in the appropriate sense, this still does not justify special hate speech laws because there is already legislation in place prohibiting threatening language. Boonin is opposed to banning hate speech because it is hateful not because it is threatening. He claims that the argument for special hate speech laws is “impaled on the horns of a dilemma: either the appeal is unconvincing because not all forms of hate speech are threatening, or it is unnecessary precisely because all forms of hate speech are threatening and are therefore already prohibited” (2011, 213). Boonin uses the same strategy with regard to other reasons, such as “fighting words”, for banning hate speech; they all find themselves impaled on the horns of the same dilemma.

The arguments of Waldron and Boonin seem to be a long way apart and the latter suggests that anyone who argues for hate speech laws is taking an extreme position. There is, however, a lot of overlap between the two, particularly as both focus on harm, and neither wants to censor hate speech simply because it is offensive. This becomes clearer if we take a suggestion offered by Waldron. At one point in his book he ponders whether it might be advantageous to abandon the term “hate speech” altogether. Such a move goes a long way to reconciling the arguments of Waldron and Boonin. Both authors agree that prohibition is acceptable when speech is threatening; they disagree on what counts as a harmful threat. Waldron thinks most forms of racial abuse qualify whereas Boonin is more circumspect. But the disagreement between the two is about what causes harm rather than any major philosophical difference about the appropriate limits on speech. If both agree that a threat constitutes a significant harm, then both will support censorship. This still leaves lots of room for disagreement, particularly as we are now more aware than was Mill of psychological as well as physical harm. I cannot delve into the topic here except to say that if we expand the harm principle from the physical to the mental realm, more options might become available for prohibiting hate speech and pornography.

There are two basic responses to the harm principle. One is that it is too narrow; the other is that it is too broad. This latter view is not often expressed because, as already noted, most people think that free speech should be limited if it causes illegitimate harm. George Kateb (1996), however, has made an interesting argument that runs as follows. If we want to limit speech because it causes harm, we will have to ban a lot of political speech. Most of it is useless, a lot of it is offensive, and some of it causes harm because it is deceitful and aimed at discrediting specific groups. It also undermines democratic citizenship and stirs up nationalism and jingoism, which results in harm to citizens of other countries. Even worse than political speech, according to Kateb, is religious speech. He claims that a lot of religious speech is hateful, useless, dishonest, and foments war, bigotry and fundamentalism. It also creates bad self-image and feelings of guilt that can haunt persons throughout their lives. Pornography and hate speech, he claims, cause nowhere near as much harm as political and religious speech. As we rightly do not want to ban political and religious speech, Kateb claims to have demonstrated that the harm principle casts the net too far. His solution is to abandon the principle in favor of almost unlimited speech.

This is a powerful argument, but there seem to be at least two problems. The first is that the harm principle would actually allow religious and political speech for the same reasons that it allows most pornography and hate speech, namely that it is not possible to demonstrate that such speech does cause direct harm to rights. I doubt that Mill would support using his arguments about harm to ban political and religious speech. The second problem for Kateb is that if he is right that such speech does cause harm by violating rights, we now have powerful reasons for limiting political and religious speech. If Kateb's argument is sound he has shown that harm is more extensive than we might have thought; he has not demonstrated that the harm principle is invalid.

3. The Offense Principle and Free Speech

The other response to the harm principle is that it does not reach far enough. One of the most impressive arguments for this position comes from Joel Feinberg who suggests that the harm principle cannot shoulder all of the work necessary for a principle of free speech. In some instances, Feinberg suggests, we also need an offense principle that can guide public censure. The basic idea is that the harm principle sets the bar too high and that we can legitimately prohibit some forms of expression because they are very offensive. Offending is less serious than harming so any penalties imposed should not be severe. As Feinberg notes, this has not always been the case and he cites a number of instances in the U.S. where penalties for “offensive” acts like sodomy and consensual incest have ranged from twenty years imprisonment to the death penalty. Feinberg's principle reads as follows: “it is always a good reason in support of a proposed criminal prohibition that it would probably be an effective way of preventing serious persons other than the actor, and that it is probably a necessary means to that end...The principle asserts, in effect, that the prevention of offensive conduct is properly the state's business” (1985, 1).

Such a principle is hard to apply because many people take offense as the result of an overly sensitive disposition, or worse, because of bigotry and unjustified prejudice. A further difficulty is that some people can be deeply offended by statements that others find mildly amusing. The furore over the Danish cartoons brings this starkly to the fore. Despite the difficulty of applying a standard of this kind, something like the offense principle operates widely in liberal democracies where citizens are penalized for a variety of activities, including speech, that would escape prosecution under the harm principle. Wandering around the local shopping mall naked, or engaging in sexual acts in public places are two obvious examples. Given the specific nature of this essay, I will not delve into the issue of offensive behavior in all its manifestations, and I will limit the discussion to offensive forms of speech. Feinberg suggests that many factors need to be taken into account when deciding whether speech can be limited by the offense principle. These include the extent, duration and social value of the speech, the ease with which it can be avoided, the motives of the speaker, the number of people offended, the intensity of the offense, and the general interest of the community.

How does the offense principle help us deal with the issue of erotica? Given the above criteria, Feinberg argues that books should never be banned because the offensive material is easy to avoid. If one is unaware of the content and should become offended in the course of reading the text, the solution is simple-close the book. A similar argument would be applied to erotic films. The French film Baise-Moi was in essence banned in Australia in 2002 because of its supposed offensive material (it was denied a rating which meant that it could not be shown in cinemas). It would seem, however, that the offense principle outlined by Feinberg would not permit such prohibition because it is very easy to avoid being offended by the film. It should also be legal to advertise the film, but some limits could be placed on the content of the advertisement so that sexually explicit material is not placed on billboards in public places (because these are not easily avoidable). At first glance it might seem strange to have a more stringent speech code for advertisements than for the thing being advertised; the harm principle would not provide the grounds for such a distinction, but it is a logical conclusion of the offense principle.

What of pornography i.e. material that is offensive because of its extremely violent or degrading content? In this case the offense is more profound: simply knowing that such material exists is enough to deeply offend many people. The difficulty here is that bare knowledge, i.e., being offended by knowing that something exists or is taking place, is not as serious as being offended by something that one does not like and that one cannot escape. If we allow that films should be banned because some people are offended, even when they do not have to view them, consistency demands that we allow the possibility of prohibiting many forms of expression. A lot of people find strong attacks on religion, or t.v. shows by religious fundamentalists deeply offensive. Feinberg argues that even though some forms of pornography are profoundly offensive to many people, they should not be prohibited on these grounds.

Hate speech causes profound offense. The discomfort caused to the targets of such attacks cannot be shrugged off easily. As with violent pornography, the offense that is caused by the march through Skokie cannot be avoided simply by staying off the streets because offense is taken over the bare knowledge that the march is taking place. As we have seen, however, bare knowledge does not seem sufficient grounds for prohibition. But in respect to some of the other factors regarding offensive speech mentioned above, Feinberg suggests that the march through Skokie does not do very well: the social value of the speech seems to be marginal, the number of people offended will be large, and it is difficult to see how it is in the interests of the community. These reasons also hold for violent pornography which Feinberg suggests should not be prohibited for reasons of offense.

A key difference, however, is the intensity of the offense; it is particularly acute with hate speech because it is aimed at a relatively small and specific audience. The motivations of the speakers in the Skokie example seemed to be to incite fear and hatred and to directly insult members of the community through the use of Nazi symbols. Nor, according to Feinberg, was there any political content to the speech. The distinction between violent pornography and the Skokie example of hate speech is that a particular group of people were targeted and the message of hate was paraded in such a way that it could not be easily avoided. It is for these reasons that Feinberg suggests hate speech can be limited by the offense principle.

He also claims that when fighting words are used to provoke people who are prevented by law from using a fighting response, the offense is profound enough to allow for prohibition. If pornographers engaged in the same behaviour and paraded through neighborhoods where they were likely to meet great resistance and cause profound offense, they too should be prevented from doing so. It is clear, therefore, that the crucial component of the offense principle is whether the offense can be avoided. Feinberg's principle means that many forms of hate speech will still be allowed if the offense is easily avoidable. It still allows Nazis to meet in private places, or even in public ones that are easily bypassed. Advertisements for such meetings can be edited (because they are less easy to avoid) but should not be banned. It seems Feinberg thinks that hate speech does not, in and of itself, cause direct harm to the rights of the targeted group (he is not claiming that offence equals harm) and he would be troubled by some of the prohibitions on speech in the U.K. and Australia.

4. Democracy and Free Speech

Very few, if any, liberal democracies are willing to support the Millian view that only speech causing direct harm to rights should be prohibited. Most support some form of the offense principle. Some liberal philosophers are willing to extend the realm of state interference further and argue that hate speech should be banned even if it does not cause harm or unavoidable offense. The reason it should be banned is that it is inconsistent with the underlying values of liberal democracy to brand some citizens as inferior on the grounds of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. The same applies to pornography; it should be prevented because it is incompatible with democratic citizenship to portray women as submissive sexual objects, who seem to enjoy being violently mistreated. Rae Langton, for example, starts from the liberal premise of equal concern and respect and concludes that it is justifiable to remove certain speech protections for pornographers. She avoids basing her argument on harm: “If, for example, there were conclusive evidence linking pornography to violence, one could simply justify a prohibitive strategy on the basis of the harm principle. However, the prohibitive arguments advanced in this article do not require empirical premises as strong as this…they rely instead on the notion of equality” (1990, 313).

Working within the framework of arguments supplied by Ronald Dworkin, who is opposed to prohibitive measures, she tries to demonstrate that egalitarian liberals such as Dworkin should support the prohibition of pornography. She suggests that we have “reason to be concerned about pornography, not because it is morally suspect, but because we care about equality and the rights of women” (1990, 311). Langton concludes that “women as a group have rights against the producers and consumers of pornography, and thereby have rights that are trumps against the policy of permitting pornography…the permissive policy is in conflict with the principle of equal concern and respect, and that women accordingly have rights against it” (1990, 346). Because she is not basing her argument on the harm principle, she does not have to show that women are harmed by pornography. For the argument to be persuasive, however, one has to accept that permitting pornography does mean that women are not treated with equal concern and respect. It also seems that the argument can be applied to non-pornagraphic material that portrays women in a demeaning way that undermines their status as equals.

To argue the case above, one has to dilute one's support for freedom of expression in favor of other principles, such as equal respect for all citizens. This is a sensible approach according to Stanley Fish. He suggests that the task we face is not to arrive at hard and fast principles that prioritise all speech. Instead, we have to find a workable compromise that gives due weight to a variety of values. Supporters of this view will remind us that when we are discussing free speech, we are not dealing with it in isolation; what we are doing is comparing free speech with some other good. We have to decide whether it is better to place a higher value on speech than on the value of privacy, security, equality, or the prevention of harm.

Fish suggests we need to find a balance in which “we must consider in every case what is at stake and what are the risks and gains of alternative courses of action” (1994, 111). Is speech promoting or undermining our basic values? “If you don't ask this question, or some version of it, but just say that speech is speech and that's it, you are mystifying—presenting as an arbitrary and untheorized fiat—a policy that will seem whimsical or worse to those whose interests it harms or dismisses” (1994, 123).

The task is not to come up with principles that always favors expression, but rather, to decide what is good speech and what is bad speech. A good policy “will not assume that the only relevant sphere of action is the head and larynx of the individual speaker” (Fish, 1994, 126). Is it more in keeping with the values of a democratic society, in which every person is deemed equal, to allow or prohibit speech that singles out specific individuals and groups as less than equal? Fish's answer is that, “it depends. I am not saying that First Amendment principles are inherently bad (they are inherently nothing), only that they are not always the appropriate reference point for situations involving the production of speech” (1994, 113). But, all things considered, “I am persuaded that at the present moment, right now, the risk of not attending to hate speech is greater than the risk that by regulating it we will deprive ourselves of valuable voices and insights or slide down the slippery slope towards tyranny. This is a judgement for which I can offer reasons but no guarantees” (1994, 115).

These kinds of justification for prohibitions on hate speech suggest that the permissive approach undermines free speech properly understood. Even if hate speech or pornography does not cause harm (in Mill's sense) or offense, it has to be limited because it is incompatible with democracy iteslf. The argument from democracy contends that political speech is essential not only for the legitimacy of the regime, but for providing an environment where people can develop and exercise their goals, talents, and abilities. If hate speech and pornography curtail the development of such capacities in certain sections of the community, we have an argument, based on reasons used to justify free speech, for prohibition.

According to Fish, the boundaries of free speech cannot be set in stone by philosophical principles. It is the world of politics that decides what we can and cannot say guided, but not hidebound, by the world of abstract philosophy. Fish suggests that free speech is about political victories and defeats. The very guidelines for marking off protected from unprotected speech are the result of this battle rather than truths in their own right: “No such thing as free (nonideologically constrained) speech; no such thing as a public forum purged of ideological pressures of exclusion” (Fish, 1994, 116). Speech always takes place in an environment of convictions, assumptions, and perceptions i.e., within the confines of a structured world. The thing to do, according to Fish, is get out there and argue for one's position.

We should ask three questions according to Fish: “[g]iven that it is speech, what does it do, do we want it to be done, and is more to be gained or lost by moving to curtail it?” (1994, 127). He suggests that the answers we arrive at will vary according to the context. Free speech will be more limited in the military, where the underlying value is hierarchy and authority, than it will be at a university where one of the main values is the expression of ideas. Even on campus, there will be different levels of appropriate speech. Spouting off at the fountain in the centre of campus should be less regulated than what a professor can say during a lecture. It might well be acceptable for me to spend an hour of my time explaining to passers-by why Manchester United is a great football team but it would be completely inappropriate (and open to censure) to do the same thing when I am supposed to be giving a lecture on Thomas Hobbes. A campus is not simply a “free speech forum but a workplace where people have contractual obligations, assigned duties, pedagogical and administrative responsibilities” (1994,129). Almost all places in which we interact are governed by underlying values and speech will have to fit in with these ideals: “[r]egulation of free speech is a defining feature of everyday life” (Fish, 1994,129). Thinking of speech in this way removes a lot of its mystique. Whether we should ban hate speech is another problem, albeit more serious, similar to whether we should allow university professors to talk about football in lectures.

Although Stanley Fish takes some of the mystique away from the value of speech, he still thinks of limitations largely in terms of other- regarding consequences. There are arguments, however, that suggest speech can be limited to prevent harm being done to the speaker. The argument here is that the agent might not have a full grasp of the consequences of her actions(whether it be speech or some other form of behavior) and hence can be prevented from engaging in the act. Arguments used in the Skokie case would fit into this category and there is evidence to suggest that watching pornography can cause psychological damage the viewer . Most liberals are wary of such arguments because they take us into the realm of paternalistic intervention where it is assumed that the state knows better than the individual what is in his or her best interests.

Mill, for example, is an opponent of paternalism generally, but he does believe there are certain instances when intervention is warranted. He suggests that if a public official is certain that a bridge will collapse, he can prevent a person crossing. If, however, there is only a danger that it will collapse the public can be warned but not coerced from crossing. The decision here seems to depend on the likelihood of personal injury; the more certain injury becomes, the more legitimate the intervention. Prohibiting freedom of speech on these grounds is very questionable for liberals in all but extreme cases (it was not persuasive in the Skokie case) because it is very rare that speech would produce such a clear danger to the individual.

We have examined some of the options regarding limitations on free speech and one cannot be classed as a liberal if one is willing to stray much further into the arena of state intervention than already discussed. Liberals tend to be united in opposing paternalistic and moralistic justifications for limiting free expression. They hold a strong presumption in favor of individual liberty because, it is argued, this is the only way that the autonomy of the individual can be respected. Feinberg suggests that to prohibit speech for reasons other than those already mentioned means: “[i]t can be morally legitimate for the state, by means of the criminal law, to prohibit certain types of action that cause neither harm nor offense to any one, on the grounds that such actions constitute or cause evils of other kinds” (1985, 3). Acts can be “evil” if they are dangerous to a traditional way of life, because they are immoral, or because they hinder the perfectibility of the human race. Many arguments against pornography take the form that such material is wrong because of the moral harm it does to the consumer. Liberals oppose such views because they are not impressed by states trying to mold the moral character of citizens.

We began this examination of free speech with the harm principle; let us end with it. The principle suggests that we need to distinguish between legal sanction and social disapprobation as means of limiting speech. As already noted, the latter does not ban speech but it makes it more uncomfortable to utter unpopular statements. Mill does not seem to support the imposition of legal penalties unless they are sanctioned by the harm principle. As one would expect, he also seems to be worried by the use of social pressure as a means of limiting speech. Chapter III of On Liberty is an incredible assault on social censorship, expressed through the tyranny of the majority, because he claims it produces stunted, pinched, hidebound and withered individuals: “everyone lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship…[i]t does not occur to them to have any inclination except what is customary” (1978, 58). He continues:

the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind…at present individuals are lost in the crowd…the only power deserving the name is that of masses…[i]t does seem, however, that when the opinions of masses of merely average men are everywhere become or becoming the dominant power, the counterpoise and corrective to that tendency would be the more and more pronounced individuality of those who stand on the higher eminences of thought. (1978, 63–4)

With these comments, and many others, Mill demonstrates his distaste of the apathetic, fickle, tedious, frightened and dangerous majority. It is quite a surprise, therefore, to find that he also seems to embrace a fairly encompassing offense principle when the sanction does involve social disapprobation:

Again, there are many acts which, being directly injurious only to the agents themselves, ought not to be legally interdicted, but which, if done publicly, are a violation of good manners and, coming thus within the category of offenses against others, may rightly be prohibited. (1978, 97 author's emphasis)

Similarly, he states that “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance” (1978, 53). In the latter parts of On Liberty Mill also suggests that distasteful people can be held in contempt, that we can avoid them(as long as we do not parade it), that we can warn others about them, and that we can persuade, cajole and remonstrate with those we deem offensive. These actions are legitimate as the free expression of anyone who happens to be offended as long as they are done as a spontaneous response to the person's faults and not as a form of punishment.

But those who exhibit cruelty, malice, envy, insincerity, resentment and crass egoism are open to the greater sanction of disapprobation as a form of punishment, because these faults are wicked and other-regarding. It may be true that these faults have an impact on others, but it is difficult to see how acting according to malice,envy or resentment necessarily violates the rights of others. The only way that Mill can make such claims is to incorporate an offense principle and hence give up on the harm principle as the only legitimate grounds for interference with behavior. Overall, Mill's arguments about ostracism and disapprobation seem to provide little protection for the individual who may have spoken in a non-harmful manner but who has nevertheless offended the sensibilities of the masses.

Hence we see that one of the great defenders of the harm principle seems to shy away from it at certain crucial points; even Mill was unable to mount a defense of free speech on this “one simple principle” alone. It does, however, remain a crucial part of the liberal defense of individual freedom.

Liberals tend to justify freedom generally, and free speech in particular, for a variety of reasons. According to Mill, free speech fosters authenticity, genius, creativity, individuality and human flourishing. He tells us that if we ban speech the silenced opinion may be true, or contain a portion of the truth, and that unchallenged opinions become mere prejudices and dead dogmas that are inherited rather than adopted. These are empirical claims that require evidence. Is it likely that we enhance the cause of truth by allowing hate speech or violent and degrading forms of pornography? It is worth pondering the relationship between speech and truth. If we had a graph where one axis is truth and the other is free speech, would we get one extra unit of truth for every extra unit of free speech? How can such a thing even be measured? It is certainly questionable whether arguments degenerate into prejudice if they are not constantly challenged. Devil's advocates are often tedious rather than useful interlocutors. Sometimes supporters of free speech, like its detractors, have a tendency to make assertions without providing compelling evidence to back them up. None of this is meant to suggest that free speech is not vitally important: this is, in fact, precisely the reason we need to find arguments in its favour. But regardless of how good these arguments are, some limits will have to be placed on speech.

We have found that the harm principle provides reasons for limiting free speech when doing so prevents direct harm to rights. This means that very few speech acts should be prohibited. It might be possible to broaden the scope of this principle, as Waldron attempts to do, to include things other than harmful rights violations. Feinberg's version of the offense principle has a wider reach than the harm principle, but it still recommends very limited intervention in the realm of free speech. All forms of speech that are found to be offensive but easily avoidable should go unpunished. This means that much pornography and hate speech will escape censure.

If these arguments are acceptable, it seems reasonable to extend them to other forms of behavior. Public nudity, for example, does not cause serious harm and if it does offend some people it is at most a bit embarrassing, and is avoided by averting one's eyes. The same goes with nudity, sex, and coarse language on television. Turning off the television provides instant relief from the offense. Neither the harm or the offense principles as outlined by Mill and Feinberg support criminalizing most drug use, nor the enforcement of seat belts, crash helmets and the like.

Some argue that speech can be limited for the sake of other liberal values, particularly the concern for democratic equality. This argument, unlike those based on harm and offense, has the potential to allow significant limits on pornography and hate speech. The claim is not that speech should always lose out when it clashes with equality, but it certainly should not be automatically privileged. To extend prohibitions on speech and other actions beyond this point requires an argument for a form of legal paternalism that suggests the state can decide what is acceptable for the safety and moral instruction of citizens, even if it means limiting actions that do not cause harm or unavoidable offense and which do not undermine democratic equality.

It has certainly been the practice of most societies, even liberal-democratic ones, to impose some paternalistic restrictions on behavior and to limit speech that causes avoidable offense. Hence the freedom of expression supported by the harm principle as outlined in Chapter One of On Liberty and by Feinberg's offense principle has yet to be realised. It is up to the reader to decide if such a society is an appealing possibility.

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  • Maitra, I., and McGowan, M.K., 2012. Speech and Harm: Controversies Over Free Speech , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • McGowan, M.K. and Ishani Maitra (eds.), 2010. What Speech Does , New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Mcleod, K., 2007. Freedom of Expression: Resistance and Repression in the Age of Intellectual Property , Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Mill, J.S., 1978. On Liberty , Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
  • Nelson, S.P., 1994. Beyond the First Amendment: The Politics of Free Speech and Pluralism , Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Netanel, N.W., 2008. Copyright's Paradox: Property in Expression/Freedom of Expression , Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Nunziato, D., 2009. Virtual Freedom: Net Neutrality and Free Speech in the Internet Age , Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Nussbaum, M., 2009. Liberty of Conscience , New York: Basic Books.
  • O'Rourke, K.C., 2001. John Stuart Mill and Freedom of Expression: The Genesis of a Theory , London: Routledge.
  • Parekh, B., 2012. “Is There a Case for Banning Hate Speech?”, in M. Herz & P. Molnar, P., The Content and Context of Hate Speech: Rethinking Regulation and Responses , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Peters, J.D., 2010. Courting the Abyss: Free Speech and the Liberal Tradition , Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Pinaire, B., 2008. The Constitution of Electoral Speech Law: The Supreme Court and Freedom of Expression in Campaigns and Elections , Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Post, S.G., 2003. Human Nature and the Freedom of Public Religious Expression , Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
  • Rauch, J., 1995. Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought , Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Raz, J., 1986. The Morality of Freedom , Clarendon: Oxford University Press.
  • Rees, J.C., 1991. “A Re-reading of Mill on Liberty” in J.S. Mill-On Liberty in Focus , eds. John Gray and G.W. Smith, London: Routledge.
  • Riley, J., 1998. Mill on Liberty , New York: Routledge.
  • Scanlon, T., 1972. “A Theory of Freedom of Expression,” Philosophy and Public Affairs , 1(2): 204–226.
  • Shaeur, F., 1984. “Must speech be special?” Northwestern Law Review , 78(5): 1284–1306.
  • Schauer, F., 1985. “Slippery Slopes” Harvard Law Review , 99(2): 361–383.
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  • Scoccia, D., 1996. “Can Liberals Support a Ban on Violent Pornography?” Ethics , 106(4): 776–799.
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  • Sorial, S., 2012. Sedition and the Advocacy of Violence: Free Speech and Counter-Terrorism , London: Routledge.
  • Stone, G., 2004. Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from The Sedition Act of 1798 to The War on Terrorism , New York: W.W. Norton.
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  • –––, 1995. Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech , New York: Free Press.
  • –––, 2003. Why Societies Need Dissent , Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
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  • Tushnet, M., A. Chen, and J. Blocher, 2017. Free Speech Beyond Words: The Surprising Reach of the First Amendment , New York: New York University Press.
  • van Mill, D., 2017. Free Speech and the State: An Unprincipled Approach , London: Palgrave Macmillan.
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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.

[As of January 2008, typing “free speech” on Google will net millions of entries. Hence it is best to simply jump in and see what one can find. It is worth noting that almost all of them are devoted to the promotion of speech in the face of censorship. This reflects a strong bias on the internet in favor of the “slippery slope” view of free speech. There are not many entries where an argument is made for placing limitations on free expression. Wikipedia has a quite a few entries dealing with censorship, free speech, pornography, and crime statistics. Here are a few other sites to get you going.]

  • American Civil Liberties Union
  • Free Speech Movement archives (related to Berkeley in the 1960s)
  • Freedom Forum , (a forum dedicated to free speech and a free press)
  • Free Expression , Center for Democracy and Technology, (a website related to the issue of free speech and the internet)
  • The Kellor Center for the Study of the First Amendment

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freedom of speech gp essay

Freedom of speech, like all other rights, has intrinsic value. It, in particular, allows an individual the liberty to express his thoughts without fear of reproach, regardless of what he says. This has important implications for a country in the social and political arenas for it is only when citizens are able to freely express support for or speak up against certain ideas, be they political policies or even social norms, that progress can be achieved. For example, in a totalitarian or dictatorial state, it is only when people are allowed to speak freely and come up with their own political parties, that there can ever be political reform and progress within a country. This is something that is widely accepted to be true and this can be seen in the global community’s support of Burma ’s possible release of opposition leader Aung Sung Su Kyi as a move steeped in foresight and with progress in mind.

Similarly, in the social sphere, it is highly beneficial to accord people their right to free speech because it not only breeds a more thinking, more creative societybu it also reduces dissatisfaction and may bring about social reform. If people are not allowed to speak their minds and can only meekly accept whatever comes their way, this is not only detrimental in terms of the type of society being bred, it also gives cause for worry in that citizens may feel deprived of their rights or suppressed, and this could breed latent dissatisfaction in the country. This latent dissatisfaction may result in violence and anger, disrupting stability within a nation. Conversely, if citizens are accorded the right to freedom of speech, this latent dissatisfaction would then have a constructive outlet and backlash would be more peaceful and less antagonistic in nature. This could lead to peaceful social reform, in contrast to the extreme measures that people would otherwise have to undertake in order to successfully put their point across. For example, Martin Luther King, a champion of equal rights in America was allowed to speak up for the rights of the minority, and this was pivotal in bringing about the paradigm shift away from white supremacy to that of equal rights for all. Hence we see that free speech can indeed improve society and enrich people.

However, despite its obvious benefits, we cannot be myopic or overly optimistic by failing to recognize the propensity for such a right to be abused. As such, we see that rights are not absolute and they cease to be ‘rights’ as soon as the exercise of that right infringes on the rights of another. Hence, we cannot assess individual freedom in a vacuum and must put it into a real world context. Free speech, like any other freedom, has the potential for abuse and such abuse results in a clash of interests between societal good and individual liberty. An obvious illustration is extremism. Extremists, who hold views widely divergent from those of mainstream, conventional thinkers, are famous for inciting violence, resulting in social upheaval and hence disrupting law and order. This occurs because certain individuals choose specifically to prey on simmering feelings of resentment, which may exist beneath the surface. This could shake the fabric of society and cause great confusion and possibly violence. This happened in Britain . In 1989, a new political party quickly gained popularity in areas north of London such as Birmingham and Westhampton. Being strongly nationalist, they managed to bring to the surface racist sentiments which ultimately culminated in wide-spread racial violence, the worst witnessed in England in twenty years. Hence we see that the abuse of freedom of speech threatened the security of the country and this is something that cannot be condoned, much less thinly veiled by the argument of it being a ‘basic right’. In such instances, it is in the best interest of society to contain, to some extent, the right of the individual for the good of society.

Thus, it is evident that while the intrinsic value accorded to rights is not entirely imagined, it is sometimes over-hyped and exaggerated and therefore must be taken with a pinch of salt. We cannot then blindly protect the right to free speech without properly taking stock of the wider implications of the actions of the individual. So, while it is a great injustice to deny people of their basic right to freedom of speech, it is justifiable to choose to curtail the rights of some for the good of society, and to avoid the case of possibly bringing about a breakdown of societal cohesion and a disruption of law and order and peace.

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Guest Essay

Behold the Free Speech Chutzpah of the Republican Party

Books on shelf, with their titles only partly visible.

By Thomas B. Edsall

Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.

A solid majority of Republicans continue to believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election — evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Virtually all Democrats believe that Trump did, in fact, lose the 2020 election and that Biden won fair and square.

Now in an extraordinary display of chutzpah, Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio, and fellow Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee have accused Democrats of violating the First Amendment rights of election deniers.

In a June 26, 2023, interim staff report, Jordan and his colleagues charged that the Biden administration “colluded with big tech and ‘disinformation’ partners to censor” those who claimed that Trump won in 2020.

The report, “ The Weaponization of CISA : How a ‘Cybersecurity’ Agency Colluded With Big Tech and ‘Disinformation’ Partners to Censor Americans,” makes the argument that

the First Amendment recognizes that no person or entity has a monopoly on the truth, and that the “truth” of today can quickly become the “misinformation” of tomorrow. Labeling speech “misinformation” or “disinformation” does not strip it of its First Amendment protection. As such, under the Constitution, the federal government is strictly prohibited from censoring Americans’ political speech.

These civil libertarian claims of unconstitutional suppression of speech come from the same Republican Party that is leading the charge to censor the teaching of what it calls divisive concepts about race, the same party that expelled two Democratic members of the Tennessee state legislature who loudly called for more gun control after a school shooting, the same party that threatens to impeach a liberal judge in North Carolina for speaking out about racial bias , the same party that has aided and abetted book banning in red states across the country.

In other words, it is Republicans who have become the driving force in deploying censorship to silence the opposition, simultaneously claiming that their own First Amendment rights are threatened by Democrats.

One of the most egregious examples of Republican censorship is taking place in North Carolina, where a state judicial commission has initiated an investigation of Anita Earls, a Black State Supreme Court justice, because she publicly called for increased diversity in the court system.

A June 2 Law360 piece examined the racial and gender composition of the North Carolina judiciary and found “that out of 22 appellate jurists — seven state Supreme Court justices and 15 Court of Appeals judges — 64 percent are male and 86 percent are white.”

The article then quoted Earls: “It has been shown by social scientists that diverse decision-making bodies do a better job. … I really feel like everyone’s voice needs to be heard, and if you don’t have a diverse judicial system, perspectives and views are not being heard, you’re not making decisions that are in the interests of the entire society. And I feel like that’s wrong.”

On Aug. 15, the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission notified Earls that it was opening an investigation “based on an interview you since gave to the media in which you appear to allege that your Supreme Court colleagues are acting out of racial, gender and/or political bias in some of their decision-making.”

Earls’s interview, the notification letter continued, “potentially violates Canon 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct , which requires a judge to conduct herself ‘at all times in a manner which promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.’”

On Aug. 29, Earls filed suit in federal court charging that there is “an ongoing campaign on the part of the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission to stifle” her First Amendment free speech rights “and expose her to punishment that ranges from a letter of caution that becomes part of a permanent file available to any entity conducting a background check to removal from the bench.”

At the center of Republican efforts to censor ideological adversaries is an extensive drive to regulate what is taught in public schools and colleges.

In an Education Week article published last year, “ Here’s the Long List of Topics Republicans Want Banned From the Classroom ,” Sarah Schwartz and Eesha Pendharkar provided a laundry list of Republican state laws regulating education:

Since January 2021, 14 states have passed into law what’s popularly referred to as “anti-critical race theory” legislation. These laws and orders, combined with local actions to restrict certain types of instruction, now impact more than one out of every three children in the country, according to a recent study from U.C.L.A.

Schwartz and Pendharkar also noted that “many of these new bills propose withholding funding from school districts that don’t comply with these regulations. Some, though, would allow parents to sue individual educators who provide banned material to students, potentially collecting thousands of dollars.”

What’s more, “Most prohibited teaching a list of ‘divisive concepts,’ which originally appeared in an executive order signed by then-President Donald Trump in fall 2020.”

The Trump order, Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping , included prohibitions on the following “divisive concepts”:

That an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex; that any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex; or that meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.

The censorship effort has been quite successful.

In a February 2022 article, “ New Critical Race Theory Laws Have Teachers Scared, Confused and Self-Censoring ,” The Washington Post reported that “in 13 states, new laws or directives govern how race can be taught in schools, in some cases creating reporting systems for complaints. The result, teachers and principals say, is a climate of fear around how to comply with rules they often do not understand.”

Larry Summers , a former president of Harvard who is a professor of economics there, argued in an email that issues of free speech are not easily resolved.

The problem, Summers wrote, “comes from both sides. Ron DeSantis’s efforts to limit what he regards as critical race theory is deplorable, as are efforts on Ivy League campuses to discredit and devalue those with unfashionable beliefs about diversity or the role of genes or things military.”

But, Summers continued,

it’s sometimes a bit harder than the good guys make out. What about cultures of intolerance where those who, for example, believe in genetic determinism are shunned, and graduate students all exhibit their academic freedom rights to not be the teaching fellows of faculty with those beliefs. Does ideological diversity mean philosophy departments need to treat Ayn Rand with dignity or biology departments need to hear out creationism?

“What about professional schools where professional ethics are part of what is being instilled?” Summers asked, adding:

Could a law school consider hiring a lawyer who, while in government, defended coercive interrogation practices? Under what circumstances should one accept, perhaps insist on university leaders criticizing speech? I have been fond of saying academic freedom does not include freedom from criticism, but when should leaders speak out? Was I right to condemn calls for divesting in Israel as antisemitic in effect, if not intent? When should speech be attacked?

There is, at this moment, a nascent mobilization on many campuses of organizations determined to defend free speech rights, to reject the sanctioning of professors and students and to ensure the safety of controversial speakers.

Graduates of 22 colleges and universities have formed branches of the Alumni Free Speech Alliance “to support free speech, academic freedom and viewpoint diversity.”

At Harvard, 133 members of the faculty have joined the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard , dedicated to upholding the free speech guidelines adopted by the university in 1990:

Free speech is uniquely important to the university because we are a community committed to reason and rational discourse. Free interchange of ideas is vital for our primary function of discovering and disseminating ideas through research, teaching and learning.

Steven Pinker , a psychology professor at the school and a founder of the group, wrote in an email that achieving this goal is much tougher than generally believed:

To understand the recent assaults on free speech, we need to flip the question: not why diverse opinions are being suppressed, but why they are tolerated. Freedom of speech is an exotic, counterintuitive concept. What’s intuitive is that the people who disagree with me are spreading dangerous falsehoods and must be stifled for the greater good. The realization that everyone feels this way, that all humans are fallible, that however confident I am in my beliefs, I may be wrong and that the only way we can collectively approach the truth is to allow opinions to be expressed and then evaluate them, requires feats of abstraction and self-control.

The example I cited at the beginning of this column — the charge that the Biden administration “colluded with big tech and ‘disinformation’ partners to censor” the claims of election deniers — has proved to be a case study of a successful Republican tactic on several fronts.

Republicans claimed the moral high ground as the victims of censorship, throwing their adversaries on the defensive and quieting their opponents.

On June 6, The Washington Post reported, in “ These Academics Studied Falsehoods Spread by Trump. Now the G.O.P. Wants Answers ,” that

the pressure has forced some researchers to change their approach or step back, even as disinformation is rising ahead of the 2024 election. As artificial intelligence makes deception easier and platforms relax their rules on political hoaxes, industry veterans say they fear that young scholars will avoid studying disinformation.

One of the underlying issues in the free speech debate is the unequal distribution of power. Paul Frymer , a political scientist at Princeton, raised a question in reply to my email: “I wonder if the century-long standard for why we defend free speech — that we need a fairly absolute marketplace of ideas to allow all ideas to be heard (with a few exceptions), deliberated upon and that the truth will ultimately win out — is a bit dated in this modern era of social media, algorithms and, most importantly, profound corporate power.”

While there has always been a corporate skew to speech, Frymer argued,

in the modern era, technology enables such an overwhelming drowning out of different ideas. How long are we hanging on to the protection of a hypothetical — that someone will find the truth on the 40th page of a Google search or a podcast with no corporate backing? How long do we defend a hypothetical when the reality is so strongly skewed toward the suppression of the meaningful exercise of free speech?

Frymer contended that

we do seem to need regulation of speech, in some form, more than ever. I’m not convinced we can’t find a way to do it that would enable our society to be more just and informed. The stakes — the fragility of democracy, the increasing hatred and violence on the basis of demographic categories and the health of our planet — are extremely high to defend a single idea with no compromise.

Frymer suggested that ultimately

we can’t consider free speech without at least some understanding of power. We can’t assume in all contexts that the truth will ever come out; unregulated speech does not mean free speech.

From a different vantage point, Robert C. Post , a law professor at Yale, argued in an email that the censorship/free speech debate has run amok:

It certainly has gone haywire. The way I understand it is that freedom of speech has not been a principled commitment but has been used instrumentally to attain other political ends. The very folks who were so active in demanding freedom of speech in universities have turned around and imposed unconscionable censorship on schools and libraries. The very folks who have demanded a freedom of speech for minority groups have sought to suppress offensive and racist speech.

The framing in the current debate over free speech and the First Amendment, Post contended, is dangerously off-kilter. He sent me an article he wrote that will be published shortly by the scholarly journal Daedalus, “The Unfortunate Consequences of a Misguided Free Speech Principle.” In it he notes that the issues are not just more complex than generally recognized but also are distorted by false assumptions.

Post makes the case that there is “a widespread tendency to conceptualize the problem as one of free speech. We imagine that the crisis would be resolved if only we could speak more freely.” In fact, he writes, “the difficulty we face is not one of free speech, but of politics. Our capacity to speak has been disrupted because our politics has become diseased.”

He specifically faults a widely read March 2022 Times editorial, “ America Has a Free Speech Problem ,” that warned:

Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.

Post observes that

no such right exists in any well-ordered society. If I walk into a room shouting outrageous slurs, I should expect to be shamed and shunned. Only a demoralized community would passively accept irresponsibly hurtful speech.

People constantly “balance self-restraint against the need for candor.”

Arguments that the protection of free speech is crucial to the preservation of democracy, Post maintains, “encourage us to forget that the fundamental point of public discourse is the political legitimation of the state. Our public discourse is successful when it produces a healthy public opinion capable of making state power answerable to politics.”

In Post’s view, polarization “is not a simple question of speech. It is the corrosive dissolution of the political commitments by which Americans have forged themselves into a single nation. If we conceptualize public discourse as a social practice, we can see that its failures stem from this fundamental problem.”

In this context, Post concludes,

Politics is possible only when diverse persons agree to be bound by a common fate. Lacking that fundamental commitment, politics can easily slide into an existential struggle for survival that is the equivalent of war. We can too easily come to imagine our opponents as enemies, whose victory would mean the collapse of the nation.

In such circumstances, Post continues,

Political debate can no longer produce a healthy and legitimate democratic will. However inclusive we may make our public discourse, however tolerant of the infinite realms of potential diversity we may become, the social practice of public discourse will fail to achieve its purpose so long as we no longer experience ourselves as tied to a common destiny.

“We cannot now speak to each other because something has already gone violently wrong with our political community,” Post writes. “The underlying issue is not our speech, but our politics. So long as we insist on allegiance to a mythical free speech principle that exists immaculately distinct from the concrete social practices, we shall look for solutions in all the wrong places.”

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here's our email: [email protected] .

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

Thomas B. Edsall has been a contributor to the Times Opinion section since 2011. His column on strategic and demographic trends in American politics appears every Wednesday. He previously covered politics for The Washington Post. @ edsall

freedom of speech gp essay

Do you agree that freedom of speech should never be denied even though it can be abused?

Freedom of speech is, to the Western world, a principal human right that must be protected by the law. Yet, to the Asian world, the freedom of speech is much less absolute, subject to the regulation of the state. Does the freedom of speech supersede other rights? Does it supersede social cohesion? Freedom of speech is no doubt an important tool, but it should not come at a cost that society is not ready to bear. Crucially, freedom of speech should be protected to the extent that it does not cause grievous harm to society. Freedom of speech is not an absolute right and should be denied in certain circumstances when it is abused. It should be protected in most instances, but where it facilitates egregious harm against society, spreads misinformation, and particularly hurts the vulnerable, such free speech no longer has a place in society.

Firstly, free speech can potentially cause grievous harm to society. In today’s polarised world, voices are becoming more strident, anti-establishment culls dominate socio-political discussions. People are becoming more vocal, particularly voices of dissent. In itself, that is not a bad thing. The problem arises when the amplification of these voices emboldens problematic subsets of ‘free speech’, such as hate speech. Hate speech is particularly pernicious because it is sectarian in nature, driving wedges between groups of people, and can prove an incredibly divisive force. Social unity is therefore threatened and can rip apart the social fabric. The unrest that would subsequently ensue is sufficiently egregious a harm for such speech to be denied. Speech that incites such divisiveness has been rejected by society and governments. Donald Trump’s role in the Capitol storming aptly reflects this. His ‘free speech’ rallied together extremist and radical right-wing Trump supporters, who fought not only to reverse the democratic process but push forth white supremacy amongst other conservative ideals. The abuse of such free speech for individual gain on Trump’s part cost massive wastage in taxpayer dollars, the loss of innocent lives, and many minorities to live in fear. Arguably, the bigoted ideas of these supporters already existed. Yet, the crucial difference here is that certain expressions of free speech embolden individuals to act on their impulses, threatening social stability. It is in this vein that Twitter banned Trump from its platform indefinitely, and the Senate brought forth impeachment charges against Trump. This highlights that our society and legal systems, as much as they try to defend free speech, prioritise social unity and security first.

Secondly, unrestricted free speech is a breeding ground for the proliferation of fake news. Fake news has been the concern of governments across the world in the last few years. Misinformation causes public fear, undermines government legitimacy, and often causes undue stress in society. Understandably, it would be mendacious to characterise all fake news as insidious in nature and created to cause harm. Many cases do arise where the fake news does not accrue significant social cost and was shared by innocent and unknowing individuals. This, however, does not discount that there is a group of individuals who will frivolously create misinformation for perverse enjoyment and the pursuit of selfish gains, abusing the protection we grant to the freedom of speech. Given that these individuals often disseminate the most attention-grabbing fake news, the extent of their impact could be massive and such freedom of speech must therefore be denied in such cases. The lack of regulation of fake news in the West proved costly in their COVID-19 pandemic fight, elucidating why such free speech ought to be restricted. The West, particularly the US, was plagued by relentless vaccine misinformation and other COVID conspiracies. Take for example QAnon which was incredibly vocal in its conspiracy claims that COVID was a ploy to keep Trump out of the office and not a true threat to society. Even if considering the view that QAnon is an anomaly, incidents of fake news cause significant vaccine hesitancy and skepticism toward government institutions. Opposition to such restrictions may argue that these large-scale crises are rare, but crucially, this lack of regulation presents a slippery slope and sets a precedent that cannot be reversed sufficiently quickly in times of crises. Free speech therefore should not be protected in such cases.

Freedom of speech should additionally be denied when it particularly hurts the vulnerable. Race of religion centric hate speech, the speech of a sexual nature toward minors in an attempt to solicit sexual favours, phishing and doxxing, among other sorts of speech, are prohibited by most states. As important as free speech may be, we must recognise that there are vulnerable individuals whom the state ought to protect. For example, they include children who are not rationally able to consent in most scenarios, the mentally handicapped, and racial-religious minorities who generally suffer microaggressions and lack the social, economic, and political capital to defend themselves. In these cases, these groups often cannot fight back or are disproportionately hurt, which the state must stand against. This restriction to free speech has been observed globally and is indicative of each state’s prioritisation of the safety of the vulnerable. For example, the penal code 298A in Singapore and Article 10 in the United Kingdom’s Human Rights Act of 1998 all put forth caveats to free speech that specifically protect minorities. The harsher laws to deter crime against children, such as section 2442(b) of Title 18 in the United States, is yet another reflection of state priorities. Such restrictions are hence principally aligned with state and social values and should be enforced.

Some may claim, conversely, that free speech is an a priori good and is crucial to self-actualisation. The underlying logic is that individuals can only live their best lives in the most meaningful way at the point where they have absolute freedom of speech. For example, individuals can engage in meaningful discourse when they can speak freely without fear of backlash, and can openly actualise their identity however they wish. Free speech is also necessary for the exchange of ideas which help inform an individual’s conception of social norms, as well as their standing relative to their society. Self-actualisation is important as it is the most individual and personal way in which a person can give value to their existence, which is crucial in leading a dignified life.

I would posit, however, that self-actualisation is not dependent on the freedom of speech, and can be accessed through many other means such as one’s talents of interest. Even if the freedom of speech is crucial to self-actualisation, the point at which we deny the freedom of speech is when it causes significant harm to society. Such speech is not the basis of an identity that the state should protect, insofar that the intentions are malicious. On balance, the right for minorities to function without the feat of bigotry in every waking moment, the right for children to be safe against predators, the right for citizens to live in a stable society that allows them to pursue their self-actualisation, cumulatively override the ability for a bigoted minority to self-actualise. There is no hesitancy that should arise in making such a trade-off. Note, however, that there is a difference between hate and discriminatory speech. All hate speech is discriminatory, but not all discriminatory speech is hate speech. Crucially, the intent must be considered in determining the nature of the speech. Any true threat to safety and intention to harm must be silenced.

This is not a world where free speech is silenced at all costs; do make no mistake of that. Dissent is valid and protected. Recognise that in most cases, protecting society and the vulnerable will not come at the cost of free speech. But when push comes to shove, protect the citizens and protect the vulnerable. A privileged white male can be vocal, openly expressing his bigotry through loudspeakers, and call it self-actualisation. But to the young Muslim girl who fears for her life walking home at night, for the single African-American mother who struggles to feed her children even on food stamps, for the refugee who lives in constant fear that he will once again be thrust into the unforgiving torment of fleeing from home, his free speech is much more than just words.

His speech is not speech we should protect. Deny free speech when it is abused.



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Youth debate: Freedom of speech: Are we allowed to say anything? 

Youth debate: Freedom of speech: Are we allowed to say anything? 

In a democratic society, freedom of speech and expression is a must. However, it has been a debate whether we are allowed to say anything we want anytime. Supporters of freedom of speech argue that an individual has the ultimate right to say anything he wants while opponents believe there should be some restrictions. Our youngsters debate.  

Nishta Jooty: “Being free does not mean to do or say whatever we want”

Freedom of speech is one of our fundamental rights, says Nishta. “According to our Constitution, we have the freedom to express and hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. However, we should ensure that the reputation, rights and freedoms of other persons are protected as well as their private lives. Freedom of speech is, in fact, freedom from the government; that is, we have the right to express ourselves and have the government not punish us for it. The freedom of the press is a good example. The press should be able to run without censorship or restraint by the government.”

Nishta argues that as citizens, being free does not mean to do or say whatever we want. “It means to respect and accept what others are thinking about and to give our opinion in a respectful way. We cannot go into an office and use insulting, offensive words towards someone and expect to get away with it because of freedom of speech. Schools, universities, organisations, companies and even websites have rules and codes of conduct which should be respected by all citizens. Bullying and harassing people with words are not allowed, even if it is on the phone or online. We need to set limits to the freedom of speech so as to protect people from harm.”

For her, being able to voice out our opinions on issues comes with responsibilities. “We should choose our words carefully and ensure that nobody is hurt. We should be held accountable for anything we say or type. It is true that today people writing anonymously or under pseudonyms, on the Internet for example, are not held accountable for their words. Freedom of speech is very subjective. It depends on the country, on the culture, on the religious tolerance and on the ease which people can take it. An example is Charlie Hebdo where the attacks unfortunately led to the death of 12 men.”

Nasreen Fakeerbaccus: “There should be some limitations”

Freedom of speech is the right to express one’s opinions and ideas without any fear of government reprisal, censorship or form of punishments, believes Nasreen. “It is qualified as a Human Rights, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and classified in the International Human Rights Law in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). As per the UDHR, everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference and everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression - this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and of all kinds of ideas, regardless of frontiers, through any type media.” 

She states that freedom of speech is considered to be fundamental in a state of democracy but should have some limitations as well. “Likewise, later on, the Article 19 has been amended accordingly stating that these rights carries special duties and responsibilities and be subjected of certain restrictions in terms of respect of the rights, reputation of others, the protection of national security, public order, public health and morals. In other words, to safeguard others rights and maintain the public order and the peace of a country.”

She further explains that freedom of speech is a means by which a Government has a feedback from its people of the way it is governing and handling the matter of the country. “Consequently, this could help in improving the country in various ways, such as taking the best decision in the interest of all citizens. In other words, the concept of democracy would be applied somehow, that is government of the people, by the people and for the people. But, there should be some limitations to safeguard other parties.” 

Vikish Rama: “Freedom of speech still a debatable issue”

Vikish Rama argues that the concept of freedom of speech has never been more debated than today.  “In this era, people share their point of view, they got their own opinions. Social media have been the platform for many people to start forums and discussions where this would connect many people to voice out their concerns. On these platforms the reactions of others cannot be controlled. Freedom of speech under law holds much respect and valuable arguments which nowadays any politician or social group would be playing blind. So is freedom of speech as powerful as it should be? Freedom of speech is also about people listening to the opposing views which co-exist to bring in a constructive equilibrium. The Right not to Say whatever you like is like respecting each other, how you would have wanted to be respected. ”

Asvin Adaya: “People have the right to speak and write openly”

Asvin argues that we live in a society where democracy is based profoundly on the right for people to express how they feel. “Freedom of speech is a basic human right in all free societies and it plays a vital role in the lives of people, especially from how a country’s ministers take decisions for society. In a society, people are very sensitive when their rights are being threatened. In every country we have a different culture that shapes the society and when the people are insecure, they become emotional and will fight to protect their rights. Sometimes, such disaccord may lead to social unrest, which as a result, can discrupt the economy. Our society is as such where freedom of speech should only be allowed according to certain norms and values.” He further adds thjat “freedom of speech is an essential aspect and it concerns every citizen. It is vital as it also concerns democracy. It secures the right to speak and write openly along with the ability to criticize any injustice.  In a way some argues with the fact that decisions cannot be made on the basis of how people feels. We live in a society where the economy should be positively active but not stagnant as we cannot please everyone at the same time. Thus, the policy makers (ministers) should educate the population and devise certain laws in order to fit the societal and economical context of the country.”

Pallavi Mattapullut:“Individuals must be responsible for their abuses” 

Pallavi believes that no one shall be intimidated on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.  “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.   Therefore the State would have to set limits on this hypothetical freedom.  A free and independent press, including online, is a pillar of vibrant societies. Yet, its future is in jeopardy. Press freedom is declining across the world, as surveillance of journalists and violations of the confidentiality of sources become more common. Reporters are often victims of government orders to shut down media websites or blogs in the name of national security or public order.  Journalists and their sources are taking enormous risks.”

She highlights that we should encourage the deployment of encryption to ensure trust online and to support the safety of journalists and the confidentiality of their sources. “Everyone has a role to play to make the Internet more trusted and secure. As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day, we must remember that rebuilding trust in the news is a complex and long process and we each have a role to play. Encryption can be one of the steps towards a brighter future for a free and independent press.” 

Rohish Ramjutton:“Freedom of speech is still the bloodline”

The right to freedom of speech and expression is one of the most precious rights which Mauritian citizens possess, states Rohish. “Ideas are constantly sought, received and imparted through media and since we belong to a modern society, the standards for free speech used by individuals on social networking sites are now able to catch up with all other forms of human interaction. People can’t be incited to violence, neither slandered (in speech), neither libeled (in writing). We are not allowed, today, to do things that would make any reasonable man punch us in the face. Limitation to restrain freedom of speech in certain circumstances are exercised with the sole purpose, against an individual’s will, to prevent harm to others. Hate speeches, racist comments, insulting vocabulary and obscene materials including pornography are banished from the population and are not justified by this freedom.” He further claims that Mauritians, being very conscious of their ethnic identities, inculcate values at a tender age so as not to venture in the restricted waters of freedom of speech. Nevertheless, freedom of speech is still the bloodline to our democracy and it is a principle worth defending to one’s dying breath.

Ashneema Seebun: “Words can hurt as well as heal” 

The most precious gift for human communication is speech, says Ashneema. “The skill to converse enables us to establish links across time and space, to understand different nations and cultures, to expand our knowledge both vertically and horizontally across the globe, to endorse the arts and sciences. Speech bridges the gaps between peoples, nations and even generations so as to put an end to old enmities, to reach agreements, to promote new partnerships. Speech allows human beings to communicate their thoughts and emotions. Words allow us to express our feelings, to record our experiences, to realise our ideas, to push outwards the frontiers of intellectual exploration. Words can move hearts, words can change perceptions, and words can set nations and peoples in powerful motion. Words are an essential part of the expression of our humanness. To limit freedom of speech and expression is to cripple the basic right to realise our full potential.” 

However, as highlighted by the lady, since historical times, it has been recognised that words can hurt as well as heal, that we have a responsibility to use our verbal skills in the right way. “By controlling or denying freedom of speech and expression, we take away a lot of potential. We take away thoughts and ideas before they even have the opportunity to hatch. We build a world around adversity where we cannot speak, think, or do what we really want. Freedom fighters ought to be freedom practitioners. The simple law for those who want to defend freedom of speech is that they must demonstrate their commitment by practising what they preach. When we speak out for our right to freedom of speech, we begin to exercise it. When we write about our right to freedom of expression, we begin to practise it. There can be no theoretical advocacy of these freedoms, there can only be practical, practicing advocacy.”

Nazleen Vadivelu: “Everyone should bear his own responsibility”

Freedom of expression is fundamental in a democracy, avers Nazleen. “In Mauritius it is guaranted under the Section 12 of the Constitution. It clearly states that: except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of expression, that is to say, freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference, and freedom from interference with his correspondence. However, freedom of expression should consist of some restrictions, so as not disrupt the peace of a country. For instance racial allegations are prohibited in a multi-racial country like Mauritius. Thus, it is important for one before giving his or her opinion on any matter to realise its consequences and take his/her responsibilities before expressing anything.”

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Home — Essay Samples — Social Issues — Freedom of Speech — Rights to Freedom of Speech and Expression

freedom of speech gp essay

Rights to Freedom of Speech and Expression

  • Categories: Civil Rights Freedom of Speech

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Freedom of speech and expression, right to information or right to know.

  • Right to voice one’s opinion
  • Right to seek information and ideas.
  • Right to receive information.
  • Right to impart information[2]
  • AIR 1978 SC 597 : (1978) 1 SCC 248
  • M.M. Semwal and Sunil Khosla- “RIGHT TO INFORMATION AND THE JUDICIARY” The Indian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 69, No. 4 (OCT. – DEC., 2008), pp. 853- 864

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Xrism satellite launches to study the universe in different colors of x-rays, work scholar finds good labor practices are good for business, what is the role of free speech in a democratic society, book co-edited by prof. geoffrey stone examines evolution, future of first amendment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 .

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Freedom Of Speech Essays

Gender identity and freedom of speech.

The views of professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto on the issue of gender identity and his beliefs, position and refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns has sparked debates. The arguments by the professor have arisen a lot of objective and subjective intuition on his stand that his freedom of speech and need to become politically correct cannot determine by use of pronouns. Discussions are presented in different articles by Ellen Brait, a staff reporter for the […]

Freedom of Speech should not be Limited

Literature has always been tricky. At times, people find certain books to be offensive or inappropriate. People will even go to great lengths to challenge or ban books just because of differing opinions. Limiting free speech has been a constant and continuous argument throughout history. One side argues that certain pieces of writing should be banned or censored due to words, content and themes that are either viewed as inappropriate, controversial or contain language that is no longer acceptable. Violence, […]

First Amendment Values

Americans value the First Amendment as much as a teenage girl values her cell phone. Life just wouldn't be the same without it. Thanks to the authors of the Constitution America has established the fundamental laws, government, and basic rights for American citizens. The document was signed on September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia. Later, Madison introduced 19 amendments, 12 of which were adopted. Ten of them were ratified and became the Bill of Rights on December 10, 1791. The First […]

Freedom of Speech and Censorship

The government needs to also look at the First amendment that gives Americans the freedom of speech. Although freedom of speech gave the Americans an opportunity to express themselves, it came with some disadvantages. Some individuals used this freedom to propagate hatred especially racism. Individuals who had something against the blacks would use the freedom of expression clause to protect themselves before making hateful remarks. They would propagate hate between the African Americans and the whites. Some leaders were known […]

What is Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech is the right of ones' right to express and communicate their ideas, opinion, and beliefs. As a result, nobody should fear being reprimanded, punished, or expurgated by society and perhaps the government at large. In most cases, it is done to attract mass attention from the community. It is entirely synonymous to seeking freedom of denied privileges such as an inappropriate distribution of public resources and side-lining of the minority among others. It is a universal right […]

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Defining Censorship

Censorship is the restriction of speech, communication or other information. Censorship affects our society in different ways. Censorship is usually determined by the government or a private foundation. It influences the music we tune in to, news articles, films, and the books we read. Censorship is a widely debated topic, and can be either harmful or protective to a society. It is possible to argue that censorship has no place in a nation that focuses on freedom of expression, because […]

Freedom of Speech on Social Media

Social media and freedom of speech have taken over the world. People read on the news every day about people being punished for what they post on social media. To what limit should people be punished for what they post? When people post online, everyone can see the material. It does not matter if the account is private. People should face consequences for their actions on social media if their post is offensive, containing work information, or includes a provocative […]

Importance of Freedom of Speech

Freedom of Speech Taken from People Many people around the world are forced to live without a voice for themselves. These people live in constant fear of the consequences they may face if they do voice their opinions. This lack of a voice goes against the inalienable right that is known as freedom of speech, which is defined as “the legal right to express one’s opinion freely” (Merriam-Webster, 2020). These restrictions of free speech can be countered through the use […]

Modern Day Censorship: Syria

How much do we value our freedom of speech as citizens of the United States of America? Would you risk your life to report news that might make an impact in the lives of many? Many countries around the world maintain very strict guidelines in what can be reported and broadcasted. In many countries this amount of strict censorship could even lead to you getting either tortured or killed. One modern day censored country would be the Middle Eastern country […]

Should Freedom of Speech be Limited

In this paper each author reflects their own moral opinion on hate speech shared with freedom of speech and the results from it containing negative content. There are several authors who discuss hate speech in considerations of freedom of speech. Despite strong objections I trust that society is obligated to protect its citizens and prevent any harm done in relation to hate speech under freedom of speech law. First, In “Freedom of Speech” David van Mill argues freedom of speech […]

On Freedom of Speech in School

What is personal liberty? Liberty is being free to do whatever the individual may want to do without restrictions. This can include things such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion and the freedom to bear arms. Anyone living in the United States are actually guaranteed these rights, right from birth. We also live in a society where these rights are given, but are also restricted or limited to a certain extent. We live in a country where anything […]

News and Democracy in Different Media Systems

Many decades ago, Siebert, Peterson, and Schramm (1959) posed a question related to the concepts of the press and its role in society, “Why is the press as it is? Why does it apparently serve different purposes and appear in widely different forms in different countries?” The answers to these questions led the authors to present the Authoritarian, the Soviet communist, the Libertarian, and the Social Responsibility models, which explain what the press should be and do in different countries. […]

Justice Freedom of Speech

With the popularity of the Internet, the network media has broken the limitation of the traditional media in the freedom of speech, and people can enjoy expressing opinions and spreading information. The infinity of the Internet brings many benefits to people, such as searching for information and watching videos. At the same time, the virtual nature of the network also brings hidden dangers for people, such as spreading false information, human flesh search, and so on. One of the reasons […]

Freedom of Speech in the United States

Freedom of speech has been protected in The United States by the First Amendment since 1791. For over 100 years, this right, though symbolically important, has sat dormant. However today, freedom of speech has been in the headlines due to its involvement in controversial topics surrounding the media, political correctness, and “hate speech”. Hateful beliefs and intolerance towards those with different characteristics exist throughout society and results in an environment of hate. Americans now have a hard choice to make […]

Hatred under the Freedom of Speech

There is a thin line between an open expression of plain hatred and the expression of opinion. It is safe to assume that every person at some point of his or her life, either witnessed or experienced a bias from bigots based on race, nationality, sex, or other characteristics. People interpret “hate speech” differently; some compare it to the crime; others see it as practicing the First Amendment. Both groups can bring a lot of arguments to support their point […]

First Amendment Freedom of Speech

The 2017 Berkeley protests organized by different groups including By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) were an abject violation of the freedom of speech as outlined in the First Amendment of the American constitution. The protests successfully stopped a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial Breitbart editor and a self-declared Trump supporter. The protests turned violent and led to the destruction of the property thus posing significant harm to the society. In defending the protests, Yvette Felarca, BAMN’s spokesperson argued that […]

What Freedom Means to me

There are millions of people around the world that live under conditions where the government withholds their human freedoms from them. Some people can not practice the religion they truly believe in, and others are scared for their lives on a daily basis. No matter how many restrictions citizens of different countries must abide by, nobody should be forced into silence. To “be free” means that everybody has the right to raise up their voice, and act for what they […]

On Freedom of Speech and Expression

Privacy is an essential right that every citizen of the United States is granted. Under the first amendment of the constitution rights such as freedom of press, speech, and privacy are protected. The first amendment separates the United States’ constitution from many other countries for a simple reason, the freedom of speech and expression. Freedom of speech and expression is the right to speak freely without fear of repercussion from the government simply because it doesn’t like the content of […]

Freedom of Speech Today

The citizens of the United States of America exercise their First Amendment right, freedom of speech in their day to day lives. Being able to voice their opinion and speak up for what they believe in is what gives our country its degree of autonomy. Having the freedom of speech is a blissful thing that people in other countries long for; such lack of censorship. Despite this freedom, it is not a free for all and has to be regulated […]

Hate Speech Debate and Discussion

In the wake of technological advancement immorality in college campus have increased. For instance, parents are sending their girls in all-girls boarding schools, and they are coming home emotionally traumatized and with low self-esteem because of sexual abuse by the older same sex. Indeed, sexual harassment and discrimination have increased in schools which are stimulating hatred and school dropouts following the progress of technology in the community. Although the immoralities are punishable and illegal in the country, they have continually […]

Negative Side-Effects of Free Speech

Since the beginning of our country, one of our founding principles has been the right to express yourself through speech, media, or any other means of communication. For a long time those that founded our country were under the control of the British, and the lack of freedom to do and say what was on your mind was very constrained. With the American Revolution, we fought for the right to convey our beliefs without fear of another governing force taking […]

1st Amendment and Congress

David Thuita I Amendment "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." The beginning of the second amendment finds its root in Athens, Greece during the 400s B.C., where free men were allowed to freely speak. Athen theaters, writings, and educational institutions all […]

First Amendment and Social Media

"The ratification of the U.S constitution in 1791 hinged on the adoption of The Bill of Rights consisting of first ten amendments. The first amendment of which protects basic freedoms including speech, religion, press and assemble however, have had its implication to be the subject of continuing interpretation and dispute over the years for media platforms. Today, the lack of use of the first amendment on social media in comparison to use in society is raising concerns for the detriments […]

Internet Censorship Laws in Saudi Arabia

"The thought of not being able to express oneself through the internet without repercussions might seem implausible; however, it is an ongoing problem in countries like Saudi Arabia. Currently, Saudi Arabia holds a score of 73 out of 100 for its Internet Freedom Score, which sets it as “not free” (“Saudi Arabia Internet Score”). Citizens are prohibited from visiting and accessing many parts of the web due to governmental restrictions based on immoral and “radically” opinionated content. This limits their […]

Question of Womens Educational Rights

What if you were not allowed to have a voice and share what you think just because of your gender? How would that make you feel? Well, this is a common thing that happens in our country and across the world. That is why I am focusing on Women's Rights as my Exhibition topic. I want this to stop. Our class Central Idea is, "Global opportunities may create conflict between people and other living things." Our groups Central Idea had […]

From Hate Speech to Hate Crimes

Hate crime is on a rise ever since awareness regarding Freedom of speech have increased. Isn’t it ironic how the same platform that gives a voice to oppressors also gives a voice to predators? When we talk about Hate crime, we all accept that hate speech is one of the main reasons for it. Hiding under the umbrella of freedom of speech, there are hatemongers and racists that utilize the useful platform of freedom of speech to gain their personal […]

Countries that Ban Same-sex Intercourse is this a Violation of International Law?

Is against the law to murder a person based up on their sexual preference? Would you take away a Civil Liberty? This But is a question you should pounder as you read my paper. But we are going to look at the international aspect. There are many countries where same-sex intercourse and or marriage is against the law. Imagine this being your reality. Having to hide from your family and friend and pretend to be someone else. You wonder should […]

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)

Introduction From investigations from World War I to present day investigations, hate crimes have occurred in the United States throughout all of history. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), a hate crime is a traditional offense, such as murder, arson, or even vandalism; with a biased element (“Hate Crimes”). Of the 7,175 incidents reported on the FBI website during the year 2017, the top bias motivation was race, ethnicity, and ancestry followed by the bias of religions (“2017 […]

The Need for the Restrictions of Hate Speech in America

Recently, the Westboro Baptist Church has been quite often in the headlines. The Anti-Defamation League's website calls the church "a small virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic hate group" based in Topeka, Kansas ("About WBC"). Since 2005, Westboro has often picketed the funerals of homosexual soldiers with signs that say "God Hates Fags" or "Thank God for Dead Soldiers" ("Pickets inspire legislation and legal action"). This behavior is offensive to the grieving families, and many states have tried to enact legislation that limits […]

A Comparison of Free Speech and Hate Speech in France, Citing Charlie Hebdo Shootings as the Biggest Threat to Free Speech this Year

The line between free speech and hate speech is constantly debated. When does one cross the line from expressing an opinion to openly encouraging hatred of a group? Ridiculing a belief system is protected under free speech, as long as one is not inciting hate or violence against the followers of that belief system. Free speech exists to allow us to openly express our beliefs and argue with others about theirs. France has, for a long time, separated church and […]

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117 Freedom of Speech Topics & Essay Examples

Looking for exciting freedom of speech topics to write about? This issue is definitely worth studying!

🔝 Top 10 Freedom of Speech Essay Topics

⁉️ freedom of speech essay: how to write, 🏆 best freedom of speech essay examples & topic ideas, 🔍 simple & easy freedom of speech essay titles, 💡 most interesting freedom of speech topics to write about, ❓ research questions about freedom of speech, 💯 free freedom of speech essay topic generator.

In your freedom of speech essay, you might want to focus on the historical perspective, elaborate on the negative effects of censorship, or even share your personal experience. Whether you will choose to write an argumentative, persuasive, or narrative essay, our article will help! We’ve gathered a list of excellent topics, ideas, and questions, together with A+ freedom of speech essay examples.

  • Freedom of speech as an individual and a collective right
  • Freedom of speech and its limitations
  • Negative effects of censorship
  • The origins of freedom of speech
  • Freedom of speech as a negative right
  • Democracy and freedom of speech
  • Freedom of information in the era of Internet
  • Freedom of speech and academic freedom
  • Liberalism and freedom of speech
  • Freedom of speech in the US

Freedom of speech is an important topic because every person has a fundamental right to express their opinions freely. Our ability to express our thoughts allows society to change and develop.

Essays on freedom of speech can raise awareness of the significance of this issue. That is why it is vital to create powerful and well-developed papers on this cause.

You can discuss various topics in your freedom of speech essay. You can search for them online or consult your professor. Here are our suggestions on freedom of speech essay analysis questions:

  • The advantages and disadvantages of free speech policies
  • The struggle schools face from the perspective of free speech
  • The appropriate use of free speech
  • The link between the freedom of speech and yellow journalism
  • Speech as a personality trait: What the freedom of speech can reveal about people
  • Freedom of speech: Pros and cons
  • Freedom of speech in the United States (or other countries)

Once you have selected one of the titles for your essay, it is time to start working on the paper. Here are some do’s of writing the essay:

  • Select topics that you are most interested in, as your dedication can help you to keep the reader engaged too. You can select one from the freedom of speech essay titles presented above.
  • Develop a well-organized freedom of speech essay outline. Think of the main points you want to discuss and decide how you can present them in the paper. For example, you can include one introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and one concluding paragraphs.
  • Define your freedom of speech essay thesis clearly. You should state it at the end of the introduction. The reader should understand the main point of your paper.
  • While working on a persuasive essay, do not forget to include a section with an alternative perspective on the problem you are discussing.
  • Remember that a concluding paragraph is vital because it includes a summary of all arguments presented in the paper. Rephrase the main points of the essay and add recommendations, if necessary.
  • Check out essay examples online to see how you can structure your paper and organize the information.

Remember that you should avoid certain things while writing your essay. Here are some important don’ts to consider:

  • Do not focus on your personal opinion solely while writing your paper. Support your claims with evidence from the literature or credible online sources.
  • Do not ignore your professor’s requirements. Stick within the word limit and make sure that your essay meets all the criteria from the grading rubric, if there is one.
  • Avoid using personal blogs or Wikipedia as the primary sources of information, unless your professor states it in the instructions. Ask your instructor about the literature you can use for the essay.
  • When checking other students’ essays online, avoid copying their ideas. Remember that your paper should be plagiarism-free.
  • Make sure that your paper is mistake-free. Grammatical mistakes may make the reader think that your opinion is not credible. It is better to check the essay several times before sending it to your professor.

Don’t hesitate to explore our free samples that can help you to write an outstanding essay!

  • Human Nature and the Freedom of Speech in Different Countries The paper will look at the human nature that necessitates speech and expression, freedom of speech as applied in different countries and limitations that freedom of speech faces.
  • Why Free Speech Is An Important Freedom Freedom of speech is an important aspect of social life in a civilized and democratic society. Although there has been debate on the justification of freedom of speech, it is important to realize that society […]
  • Freedom of speech, religion and religious tolerance As stipulated in Article 19 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration, the pastor has the right to share ideas and information of all kinds regardless of the periphery involved and in this case, he should […]
  • Freedom of Speech: Exploring Proper Limits In this respect, Downs mentions the philosophy of educational establishments, where “the function of the University is to seek and to transmit knowledge and to train student in the process whereby truth is to be […]
  • Government’s control versus Freedom of Speech and Thoughts One of the most effective measures that oppressive regimes use the world over is the limitation of the freedom of speech and thoughts.
  • Controversies over freedom of speech and Internet postings It must be noted though that despite the Freedom of Speech being a first Amendment right, subsequent amendments to the constitution as well as various historical acts such as the Sedition Act of 1798 and […]
  • Freedom of Speech in China and Political Reform Although the constitution of China has the provision of the freedom of speech, association, press and even demonstration, the freedom is not there in reality since the constitution forbids the undertaking of anything that is […]
  • “The Weight of the Word” by Chris Berg From this analysis therefore, we see that, state interference in the wiki leaks saga was unwarranted, and it amounted to a breach of the freedom of the press.
  • Freedom of speech in the Balkans Freedom of speech in Montenegro In Montenegro, the practice of the freedom of speech and press were restricted to some issues by the law.
  • Freedom of Speech in Social Media Essay Gelber tries to say that the history of the freedom of speech in Australia consists of the periods of the increasing public debates on the issue of human rights and their protection.
  • Freedom of Speech and Expression This implies that autonomy is the epitome of the freedom of expression in many ways. Perhaps, this is the point of diversion between autonomy and restriction of the freedom of expression.
  • Advertising and Freedom of Speech According to Liodice, the marketer should provide the best information to the targeted consumer. The duty of the marketer is to educate and inform the consumer about the unique features of his or her product.
  • Freedom of Speech: Julian Assange and ‘WikiLeaks’ Case Another significant issue is that the precedent of WikiLeaks questions the power of traditional journalism to articulate the needs of the society and to monitor the governments.
  • Freedom of Speech in Modern Media At the same time, the bigoted approach to the principles of freedom of speech in the context of the real world, such as killing or silencing journalists, makes the process of promoting the same values […]
  • American Student Rights and Freedom of Speech As the speech was rather vulgar for the educational setting, the court decided that the rights of adults in public places cannot be identic to those the students have in school.
  • Canada’s Freedom of Speech and Its Ineffectiveness In the developed societies of the modern world, it is one of the major premises that freedom of expression is the pivotal character of liberal democracy.
  • The Importance of Freedom of Speech In a bid to nurture the freedom of speech, the United States provides safety to the ethical considerations of free conversations.
  • Freedom of Speech and International Relations The freedom of speech or the freedom of expression is a civil right legally protected by many constitutions, including that of the United States, in the First Amendment.
  • Freedom of Speech on Campus The primary issue identified by the case study is the extent to which free speech can be used and is protected regarding sensitive social aspects and discussions.
  • Freedom of Speech and Expression in Music Musicians are responsible and accountable for fans and their actions because in the modern world music and lyrics become a tool of propaganda that has a great impact on the circulation of ideas and social […]
  • The Freedom of Speech: Communication Law in US By focusing on the on goings in Guatemala, the NYT may have, no doubt earned the ire of the Bush administration, but it is also necessary that the American people are made aware of the […]
  • Newt Gingrich Against Freedom of Speech According to the constitution, the First Amendment is part of the United States Bill of rights that was put in place due to the advocation of the anti-federalists who wanted the powers of the federal […]
  • Freedom of Speech and the Internet On the one hand, the freedom of expression on the internet allowed the general public to be informed about the true nature of the certain events, regardless of geographical locations and restrictions.
  • Value of Copyright Protection in Relation to Freedom of Speech The phrase, freedom of expression is often used to mean the acts of seeking, getting, and transfer of information and ideas in addition to verbal speech regardless of the model used. It is therefore important […]
  • Supreme Court Decision: Corporations and Freedom of Speech The Constitution is the framework for the Government of the United States that protects and guarantees the basic rights of the people.
  • Freedom of Speech: Is Censorship Necessary? One of the greatest achievements of the contemporary democratic society is the freedom of speech. However, it is necessary to realize in what cases the government has the right to abridge the freedom of self-expression.
  • Freedom of Speech Comes With Responsibility In Australia, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press are highly valued accomplishments nowadays. According to Conroy, the present Press Council, and the current ACMA, the two existing establishments aimed to […]
  • Protesting as a Way of Exercising Freedoms of Speech and Expression However, this department will be very careful in monitoring the behavior of the protestors and engaging in dialogue to solve issues that may lead to conflicts.
  • The Internet and Freedom of Speech: Ethics and Restrictions Because of a lack of security technology, across the board prohibition is justified under the law, a concept that is in itself considered unlawful by a strict definition of the First Amendment of the Constitution […]
  • Why Defamation Laws Must Prioritize Freedom of Speech The body of the essay will involve providing information on the nature of defamation laws in the USA and the UK, the implementation of such laws in the two countries, and the reason why the […]
  • Freedom of Speech as the Most Appreciated Liberty In the present-day world, the progress of society largely depends on the possibility for people to exercise their fundamental rights. From this perspective, freedom of speech is the key to everyone’s well-being, and, in my […]
  • Freedom of Speech in Shouting Fire: Stories From the Edge of Free Speech Even though the First Amendment explicitly prohibits any laws regarding the freedom of speech, Congress continues to make exceptions from it.
  • Privacy and Freedom of Speech of Companies and Consumers At the same time, in Europe, personal data may be collected following the law and only with the consent of the individuals.
  • The Freedom Of Speech, Press, And Petition
  • How The First Amendment Protects Freedom Of Speech
  • The Freedom Of Speech, And Gun Ownership Rights
  • The Misconception of Hate Speech and Its Connection with the Freedom of Speech in Our First Amendment
  • Limitations On Constitutional Rights On Freedom Of Speech
  • Teachers’ and Students’ Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression
  • Internet Censorship Means No Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of Speech Part of America’s Constitution
  • An Examination of the Disadvantage of Freedom of Speech in Slack Activism
  • A Description of Freedom of Speech as One of the Most Important Freedoms
  • How Censorship In The Media Is Taking AWay Our Freedom Of Speech
  • An Analysis of Freedom of Speech and Its Punishments
  • The Effects Of Technology On The Right Of Freedom Of Speech
  • Freedom of Speech: Missouri Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. Kansas City
  • Problems with Limiting Freedom of Speech
  • How The Freedom Of Speech And Its Interpretation Affects
  • Giving Up Freedom Of Speech – Censorship On Hate Sites
  • Freedom Of Speech, Religion, And The American Dream
  • The Freedom Of Speech Across The World Wide Web
  • Freedom of Speech: Should There be Restrictions on Speech in the U.S. Democracy
  • An Argument in Favor of the Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press in Schools
  • Freedom Of Speech And Violent Video Games
  • The Importance of Freedom of Speech to the Progress of Society
  • The Amendment Is Not Protected Under The Freedom Of Speech
  • Should There Be Restrictions to Freedom of Speech
  • Why Should Myanmar Have Similar Freedom of Speech Protections to United States
  • An Analysis of the Freedom of Speech and the Internet in United States of America
  • Freedom of Speech and the First Amendment
  • Free Speech : The Benefits Of Freedom Of Speech
  • Comparison of Freedom of Speech: Malaysia vs China
  • The Fine Line between Freedom of Speech or Hate Speech
  • Freedom Of Speech : One Of The Core Principles Of A Democracy
  • Prevent Internet Censorship, Save Freedom of Speech
  • The Importance of the First Amendment in Providing Freedom of Speech in America
  • How the Freedom of Speech Is Possible Through the Internet in China
  • The Importance of Freedom of Speech in Higher Education
  • Hate Mail and the Misuse of the Freedom of Speech on the Internet
  • A Comparison of Freedom of Speech and Private Property
  • Importance Of Freedom Of Speech In Colleges
  • Freedom Of Speech and Its Legal Limits
  • Freedom Of Speech As An International And Regional Human Right
  • The Importance of Protecting and Preserving the Right to Freedom of Speech
  • An Overview of the Importance of the Freedom of Speech in the United States
  • The Communication Decency Act: The Fight for Freedom of Speech on the Internet
  • Freedom Of Speech On Students’s Rights In School
  • How Far Should the Right to Freedom of Speech Extend
  • Journalism and Freedom of Speech
  • The Constitution and Freedom of Speech on the Internet in U.S
  • ‘Freedom of Speech Means the Freedom to Offend.’
  • Does the Law Relating to Obscenity Restict Freedom of Speech?
  • Does New Zealand Have Freedom of Speech?
  • How Far Should the Right to Freedom of Speech Extend?
  • Does South Korea Have Freedom of Speech?
  • How the First Amendment Protects Freedom of Speech?
  • Does Freedom of Speech Mean You Can Say Anything?
  • How Do You Violate Freedom of Speech?
  • What Are Mill’s Four Main Arguments in Defence of Freedom of Speech?
  • What Violates the Freedom of Speech?
  • What Are the Disadvantages of Freedom of Speech?
  • Does Freedom of Speech Have Limits?
  • Why Does Australia Not Have Freedom of Speech?
  • What Are the Three Restrictions to Freedom of Speech?
  • How Is Freedom of Speech Abused?
  • Who Benefits and Loses from Freedom of Speech?
  • Is There Freedom of Speech in Media?
  • What Are the Limits of Freedom of Speech in Social Media?
  • Does Social Media Allow Freedom of Speech?
  • How Is Freedom of Speech Negative?
  • Where Is Freedom of Speech Not Allowed?
  • Is USA the Only Country with Freedom of Speech?
  • Does India Have Freedom of Speech?
  • Who Made the Freedom of Speech?
  • Why Was Freedom of Speech Created?
  • Who Fought for Freedom of Speech?
  • Chicago (N-B)
  • Chicago (A-D)

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Freedom of speech argumentative essay.

Introduction Freedom of speech is part of human rights that allows people to express their views without fearing punishment or censorship (Barak-Erez, & Scharia 2011). This right allows people to voice their opinions, in either written or unwritten format. Freedom of speech is necessary to prompt changes or development in society. However, this right also extends to protecting the view, beliefs, or opinions of the minority groups. All governments have taken measures to limit this right to prevent individuals from uttering offensive views that may promote terrorism, fascism, or racism. The government also limits this freedom to prevent obscenities, words that may prompt anarchy, and child pornography, among others.

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Benefits of freedom of speech The concept of freedom of speech is beneficial as it allows individuals to voice their opinions with fearing sanctions, punishments, or condemnation by law. Through this protection, citizens of a country have the power to question or fight injustices and prompt economic, social, or political development.

Importance of freedom of speech The freedom of speech concept is regarded as an essential right that an individual can have. Because of its importance, almost all countries have preserved it in its constitution. In the United States, this right is protected under the First Amendment. The principal purpose of this right is to foster democracy. The concept of democracy is founded on going with the majority opinion. This right is protected to enable individuals make free choices when voting to form a government. The second importance of this right is that it prevents corruption and dictatorship. As a matter of fact, countries that do not protect this right turn into dictatorships. For instance, North Korea became a dictatorial regime after the Korean War after the government denied its citizens this freedom. The Kim family chose to control all aspects of North Korean lives, controlling religion, recreation, and media (Yoon 2003). The government runs the press, thus controlling all contents and stories reaching the public. No North Korean is permitted to question the government in any aspect. People who go ahead to question the regime and its actions are either executed or sent to hard labor camps.

Drawbacks of freedom of speech Without limitations, the concept of freedom of speech may be misused by people to cause harm to others (Barak-Erez, & Scharia 2011). For example, this right can be misused by individuals to voice comments that promote terrorism, anarchy, and racism. This freedom should not be used to make comments that suggest that one race is superior to the other or one gender is superior to the other. In instances of war, this concept may be misused by individuals for selfish gains. For instance, a person may use this right to sell his country’s secrets to another country or make comments that harm national unity. To prevent these acts, countries have legislation that restrict the enjoyment of this right. For example, the United Kingdom passed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act and the Terrorism Act in 2006 after the 2005 London bombings to prevent its citizens from making comments that may be seen to promote terrorism, racial, or religious animosity, either directly or indirectly (Barendt 2009).

Changes benefited from freedom of speech Individuals have benefited from this right while at the same time seeking changes. It has enabled them to voice their concerns about how the government is run. With this right, individuals can now stand against oppression and injustice without fearing the law.

  • Barak-Erez, D, & Scharia, D, 2011, “Freedom of speech, support for terrorism, and the challenge of global constitutional law”, Harvard National Security Journal, 2, 1-30.
  • Barendt, E, 2009, “Freedom of expression in the United Kingdom under the Human Rights Act 1998”, Indiana Law Journal, 84(3:4), 851-866.
  • Yoon, D, K, 2003, “The Constitution of North Korea: Its changes and implications”, Fordham International Law Journal, 27(4:2), 1289-1305.

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Essay on Freedom of Speech in English Free PDF download


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

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

Long Essay on Freedom of Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short Essay on Freedom of Speech

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

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

Key Highlights of the Essay - Freedom of Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Mention five lines for Freedom of Speech Essay?

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

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

iii) Freedom of speech is never absolute in nature.

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

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

2. Explain Freedom of Speech?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. What is Freedom of Speech?

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

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

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

8. Is Freedom of Speech absolute?

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

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Right to Not Be Offended vs Free Speech

freedom of speech gp essay

Free Speech

Article 14 of the Singapore Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression in Singapore for Singaporeans. However, this right is not unfettered as the Singapore Parliament may legislate:

  • To protect the privileges of Parliament;
  • To provide against any contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence;  or
  • Where it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of Singapore’s security, diplomatic relations with other countries, public order or morality.

For instance, section 298 of the Penal Code stipulates that it is an offence to utter a word within hearing distance of a person, with the deliberate intention to wound that person’s religious or racial feelings. Arguably, this restriction is necessary in the interest of Singapore’s public order due to the need to uphold racial and religious harmony in the country .

Although the right to free speech is guaranteed for Singaporeans, it is more of a principle than a rule. This means that it must be balanced with other principles including national security, public order and morality.

Right to Not be Offended?

Currently, the right to not be offended does not exist in any legislation or constitution. However, the limits to free speech has given rise to situations where we seem to be protecting the feelings of others. By a simple extrapolation, more people are starting to claim and rely on the right to not be offended to resist the free speech of others.

In Washington, US, a school superintendent refused to allow the school’s woodwind ensemble to play “Ave Maria” at their graduation ceremony because she believed the piece to be religious in nature. Even though the student musicians proposed to play the music instrumentally and that the superintendent did not know that “Ave Maria” is Latin for “Hail Mary”, the Court agreed that the school acted reasonably in trying to avoid offending anyone. From the Court’s perspective, the school authorities could limit the students’ right to free speech to prevent those attending graduation from being offended.

Can the right to not be offended be sustained?

Yet, by sanitising the schools of any and all religious content, it is not simply a matter of silencing those who are religious but also an annihilation of the cultural landscape for the entire student population. So much of art, music and literature was inspired by religion or at least influenced by religion. Should we also then forbid our art students from studying Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel because it has religious content?

Beyond the specific subject matter of religion, the right to not be offended would undermine the fundamental freedom of speech. With the issues of art, religion, politics and even food, there are bound to be different opinions and interpretations. Invariably, when opinions clash, someone is likely to take offense at what someone else says or does. There can be no single unifying opinion unless we are coerced to a place where political correctness triumphs in the name of the right to not be offended.

Disagreement in the public discourse is a means for new meaning to emerge and for rationality and language to evolve. When asked why his right to freedom of speech should trump a person’s right not to be offended, Dr Jordan Peterson (a clinical psychologist and public speaker) replied that you have to “risk being offensive” to be able to think. 

Imagine a world where we could not disagree and that we could only debate on things that we already agree on. The term “debate” would cease to have any meaning and our identities as rational beings would be whittled away.

Can we learn to develop the art of civility, i.e., the art of trying to work through to an agreement rather than take offense when we disagree? See this video to learn more.

Singapore Context

Authorities in Singapore intervened to condemn a vulgar rap video (Prettipls) in which two Indian rappers slammed those of the Chinese ethnicity. This rap video was posted in response to a controversial ‘brownfacing’ advertisement where a Chinese actor had darkened his skin to portray an Indian character and put on a headscarf to portray a Muslim Malay woman.

The Singaporean police stated that they will not “tolerate any offensive content that causes ill will between races”. Shanmugam, the Minister for Law and Home affairs, emphasised the importance of racial harmony and of ensuring that all the races and minorities feel safe. 

While free speech is not about sanctioning a form of self-expression that deliberately seeks to offend others, there must be a sufficient forum for debates to take place where people are prepared to take offense in a bid to contribute to public discourse. While we discuss the ramifications of the vulgar rap video, are we also prepared to debate about the controversial advertisement which started the furore in the first place?

  Questions for further personal evaluation: 

  • How would you have debated the issue of race relations regarding the controversial advertisement? Do you think the vulgar rap video crossed the line of free speech?
  • What is the value of free speech and why must it be balanced by other values or  principles?

Useful vocabulary: 

  • ‘ extrapolation’ : predict by projecting past experience or known data
  • ‘ discourse ’: verbal interchange of ideas

Here are more related articles for further reading:

  • The Guardian : Free speech is empty without the right to offend

“ [T]ry thinking about this: I find it offensive that in many parts of the world people are regularly beaten, jailed and murdered for daring to follow a different belief system, for voicing their sexuality, or for suggesting they want a democratic government. I find it offensive that the majority of decisions in the UK parliament, in the judiciary, in the arts, are made by a small group of people who can shut out the views of large swaths of the population. I find the portrayal of women by much of the British media offensive. These things make me angry. But the fact that I find them offensive or anger-inducing cannot, and should never, be used as an excuse for shutting down their speech. Because that is exactly how millions of people are silenced the world over, how repressive regimes thrive – through law, or through violence, or both. And what protects people’s rights to say things I find objectionable is precisely what protects my right to object.

Violence is how the mob silences the minority, the terrorist its target. As the historian Timothy Garton Ash pointed out in our discussions last Friday, the so-called “heckler’s veto” – the threat of disorder being used to silence speech – has in the case of Charlie Hebdo, and now Copenhagen, been replaced by an attempted “assassin’s veto” – using the threat of murder to silence any of those with whom we disagree. And we cannot let that happen. ”

  • The Guardian : Singapore’s “Fake News” law and its ramifications on free speech

“ The law, which passed on Wednesday, will require online media platforms to carry corrections or remove content the government considers to be false, with penalties for perpetrators including prison terms of up to 10 years or fines up to S$1m ($735,000).

Technology giants including Google and Facebook have said they see the law giving Singapore’s government too much power in deciding what qualifies as true or false.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said the new law was a “disaster for online expression by ordinary Singaporeans, and a hammer blow against the independence of many online news portals”.

“Singapore’s leaders have crafted a law that will have a chilling affect on internet freedom throughout south-east Asia, and likely start a new set of information wars as they try to impose their narrow version of ‘truth’ on the wider world.” ”

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Even though freedom of speech can be tricky, understanding what can be said under the first amendment is key. Freedom of speech is the freedom to speak freely without censorship. The term freedom of expression is sometimes used to indicate not only freedom of verbal speech but any act of seeking, receiving and imparting information or ideas, regardless of the medium used. In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute in any country and the right is […]

A Power of Speech

Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate. Chief Justice John Roberts, Snyder v. Phelps Recently, a photograph of what appears to be a group […]

Mill’s Defense of Free Speech

Mill has many words of wisdom throughout this textbook, many of his thoughts I agree upon. One, in particular, is his focus on freedom of speech. He is very inspiring and has many thoughts throughout his piece that exclaims the positives of freedom of speech, which an individual in society will genuinely desire upon. According to J.S. Mill, we see that freedom means: the freedom of thought, religion, speech, the freedom of tastes, and the freedom to plan the life […]

Declaration of Independence and Constitution Issues

 The Declaration of Independence established the core principles of our Nation, the United States of America. Our Constitution with the Amendments provides a rule of laws for an actual government to accomplish those principles. TheBill of Rightsprotects the individual rights of American citizens and was adopted as a single unit on December 15, 1791. Our basic rights include Freedom of speech Freedom of religion The right to bear arms In US, the right to freedom of speech and expression is […]

The Policy of the First Amendment

The first amendment conducts to citizens, while many believe that it guarantees them a limit of freedom. We get stuck in an unlawful situations, which forces us to know what our rights are. This is a hotly debated topic that often divides opinions. The first amendment is often discussed yet rarely understood. These rights includes everyone, but some just take advantage over it. It goes without saying this law is one of the most important issues facing us today. The […]

The Significance of the First Amendment

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedoms of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly.1 Most Americans agree that these freedoms are important, but every American should also consider why this amendment is important and whom this amendment protects. For instance, does freedom of religion protect individuals, religious groups, or non-religious people, and why is it important that people can freely worship? For that matter, does this part of the Constitution prohibit the government from ever interacting with […]

Argumentative Research Essay Censorship

Censorship should be avoided at all costs to preserve the wholesomeness of the government, and the safety of its citizens. Censorship is a brutal tool used throughout history by tyrannical governments, and oppressive organizations to maintain dominance, and control of public masses. The American government, and many private companies have been taking steps to limit what kinds of information are appropriate to share in public, or private circles. The only morally sound way to combat this slow march of our […]

An Importance of the First Amendment

The First Amendment is an important amendment. The people that oppose the First Amendment may say that the First Amendment doesn’t fully serve its purpose. They may say that although the First Amendment exists, people are still banned from social media for saying something critical to the government, or discriminated against for practicing another religion. The people that support the First Amendment say that the First Amendment gives the fundamental rights to humans and it limits Congress from breaking those […]

Right to Information Essay Example Pdf

“When freedom of expression is put to use by the mass media, it acquires an additional dimension and becomes freedom of information.” [1] In the post modern world of technology information plays an important role. From the classified document leak by Julian Assange to the alleged snoop by the US government, information has started to become an powerful tool. So much powerful that it can single handedly topple most powerful democracies. Hence it is necessary to regulate such disposition of […]

Introduction for Essay

Research paper on freedom of speech, thesis statement for freedom of speech.

There are responsibilities that one should realize when connecting to freedom of expression. When should one draw the line for one’s words, written or even spoken, before becoming unpleasant? What are the limitations of freedom of expression? Should individuals be accountable for the things he or she speaks or writes? Should these same individuals have consequences for one’s own actions? These issues are an important aspect. We all should be more aware of how speech, both verbal and written, affects the freedom of others.

According to John Stuart Mill, ‘If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one opinion than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.’ (Mill). Mills’ quote helps me to understand the importance of individual rights. While using logic, Mill helps me understand the freedom of expression, even if it is absurd. Both negative and positive options matter. They both balance out each other. It is my understanding that there is a difference between silencing a person with an opinion and allowing them to do anything that most may consider hurtful to others. Some things don’t even require anyone or thing to listen, just that the individual not be forced to be quiet by any.

Argumentative Essay Examples on Freedom of Speech

In the article “Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” Mill states his quote, which highlights the importance of individual rights. He uses logic and everyday knowledge in order to both receive and give happiness. I feel as if Mill thought that the harm done by an individual where not very popular opinions are forbidden would be far greater than the harm brought by having to hear a deeply not-so-popular opinion. Freedom is a privilege that we should honor not only our own but others as well.

Freedom of expression is a right that pleases to use without the fear of being in trouble, and this is one of the most used and most abused freedoms throughout America. People tend to think just because they have this right, and they can get away with saying anything. When they get in trouble for what was said, they like to though freedom of speech around. Expression is sometimes used synonymously, such as seeking or receiving information or ideas regardless of the absurdness.

Ideas: Limitations of Freedom of Expression

Freedom of speech or expression isn’t always free. With all things, there are limitations. The government sets the limitations. Some common limitations are threats, government secrets, plagiarism, and copying writing, just a few to name. Not only are there limitations on things that you can say, but also where you can say them at. Places that are government own public schools, colleges, banks, stores, even churches, etc. Basically, anywhere that isn’t your home or vehicle. For example, I could go to school and say something was a “bomb” or go ahead and “pull the trigger.” No one would take that lightly in this day in age with all the school shootings and bomb threats.

Another good example will be to yell “fire” and have everybody go into a panic. That is why there is a saying think before you speak. But if you must think about what you are going to say most of the time, you shouldn’t say it anyway. Free in America doesn’t always mean free. I feel as if they put the free in front of things to make it seem as if people have some sort of control of their own life. Freedom of expression can only go so far before one starts to mess with another freedom. Watch what you say. Meaning always being respectful to others before talking.

There are not only limitations but also self-awareness with both verbal and written speech. Self-awareness is being able to understand yourself. Meaning you know how you are and are aware of how you can be. People know what they are saying or writing is either wrong or right. If you don’t have anything meaningful to say, then don’t say it at all.

Consequences of Expressions

I think all expressions have consequences regardless of the behavior. Even if, in some cases, there may be people who are unaware of the consequences. There are two different things that may happen. When the consequences are positive, you may try to repeat what was done in order to get the same feeling from the results. If the consequences are negative, you still may repeat what was done and risk repeating the same mistakes as the time before. You may not notice it at first, but both will become frustrating. It is important to understand the consequences of your actions. Most consequences are predictable. There might even be some you don’t appreciate at the time, but in time you will. All consequences are learning experiences.

The Power and Advantages of Freedom of Speech

There is also the advantage of freedom of speech. For instance, when telling someone no or stop. For example, when a bully tries to take your self-esteem with hurtful words, you can tell them to stop because that is your right. Or being pro-self, a woman has a choice if she wants to abort or not. That is her choice and right. What you say can have a big effect on the world, no matter if it is good or bad.

Thoughtful Expression and Responsible Speech

It all boils down to what you say should be thought about before expressing it. When you use your words responsibly, you do not have to worry about the consequences that may come from them. While freedom is a privilege and also an honor to have, most people don’t feel the same as I do. There are those who are unable to have the right to speak freely. I believe one should speak about or to others how you would want to be talked to.

Freedom of speech can affect those around your freedom. So how does one respect one own without affecting others around you? by using freedom of speech out of context? And not knowing freedom isn’t free. Everything costs, rather it is positive or negative. Every little thing is a teaching moment. I am only one opinion against all others. Remember who you are and express yourself that will be weaning to yourself and others around you despite the negative or positives.


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