Freedom of Speech: How Is Offensive Speech Good For Society?

Tom W. Bell,

Release Date
June 29, 2015


Free Speech

The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech and has been upheld by the Supreme Court more than once. But with occurrences like Charlies Hebdo and other incidents of racist, obscene, and hateful speech occurring, should this protection still apply? As Professor Tom W. Bell explains, it was unfavorable speech that not only allowed individuals to protest Jim Crow laws and neo Nazis and to fight for unpopular causes like the abolition of slavery or gay rights. In order for society to progress, hateful and offensive speech should not be censored. Freedom of expression must be protected.

This Prof. will Challenge your Perspective on Free Speech” (video): Professor Deirdre McCloskey complicates the understanding of free speech by associating this freedom with the ancient Greek word for persuasion: rhetoric.
Students Banned from Passing Out Constitutions” (video): Modesto Junior College in California told a student that he could not pass out copies of the United States Constitution outside the student center on Constitution Day.
Find Your School: Spotlight Speech Code Database” (interactive database): Each year, Freedom for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reads through the rules governing student speech at more than 400 of our nation’s biggest and most prestigious universities to document the institutions that ignore or violate students’ rights.
Guide to Free Speech on Campus” (resource guide): Essential guide for college students interested in protecting free speech.

Prof. Tom W. Bell: Why should we care about free speech? On college campuses, students clamor for restrictions on speech that they consider offensive, hateful or disturbing. Internationally, countries consider further limiting speech in the wake of violence like that committed by those who object portrayals of the prophet Muhammad. In the American media, many commentators question whether such offensive and provocative speech should even be allowed, and why should it? What good does it do to let people offend others’ deeply held religious beliefs? What good does it do to allow people to say racist or bigoted things? What about homophobic slurs or remarks demeaning towards women or any other nasty hateful comments that you can imagine? Wouldn’t our country be a better place if we shut down that kind of speech?
No. Freedom of expression matters precisely because it allows us to voice and hear unpopular and controversial views. You don’t have to like offensive speech. In fact, you should feel free to vigorously denounce and criticize speech that you see is wrong, but when people resort to force to prevent or restrict expressions that they disagree with, they undermine the very principles of freedom and tolerance that they claim to defend. When we allow the open expression of hateful opinions, we create opportunities to publicly refute them. The US Supreme Court has upheld the right of Neo-Nazis to march their Jewish neighborhoods while expressing acutely offensive and distressing views, but when such ugly demonstrations have taken place, much larger counter demonstrations have arisen in opposition. The result, greater awareness about the importance of taking a stand against hate.
Allowing offensive speech also matters because it promotes the progress of human understanding. Some expressions, once wildly denounced as offensive or even dangerous, have won vindication and become received truth. Whether it was scientists like Galileo challenging [Linda’s Dogma 01:50] about astronomy, abolitionists calling for the end of slavery, civil rights leaders demanding an end to Jim Crow laws, or gay magazine publishers whose work was labelled obscenity, speech that authorities once tried to censor has instead contributed immeasurably to our culture. When authority sees the power to silence offensive views, they also have necessity sees the power to silence dissenting and minority views. In effect, censors pursue a policy of ignorance by design, that’s why smart societies respect freedom of expression, even when, especially when it causes discomfort and offense.