Is free speech outdated? Part 6 of answers to bad arguments against free speech from Nadine Strossen and Greg Lukianoff - FIRE (2022)

In May 2021, I published a list of “Answers to 12 Bad Anti-Free Speech Arguments” with our friends over at Areo. The great Nadine Strossen — former president of the ACLU from 1991 to 2008, and one of the foremost experts on freedom of speech alive today — saw the series and offered to provide her own answers to some important misconceptions about freedom of speech. My answers, when applicable, appear below hers.

Earlier in the series:

  • Part 1: Free speech does not equal violence
  • Part 2: Free speech is for everyone
  • Part 3: Hate speech laws backfire
  • Part 4: Free speech is bigger than the First Amendment
  • Part 5: You can shout ‘fire’ in a burning theater
  • Part 6: Is free speech outdated?
  • Part 7: Does free speech assume words are harmless?
  • Part 8: Is free speech just a conservative talking point?
  • Part 9: Free speech fosters cultural diversity
  • Part 10: Why ‘civility’ should not trump free expression
  • Part 11: ‘New’ justifications for censorship are never really new
  • Part 12: Free speech isn’t free with a carveout for blasphemy
  • Part 13: Does free speech lead inevitably to truth?
  • Part 14: Shouting down speakers is mob censorship

Assertion: The arguments for freedom of speech are outdated.

Nadine Strossen: The arguments both for and against freedom of speech continue to involve the same eternal, fundamental issues of principle that have been debated throughout history: why free speech is important, and how to draw the appropriate line between protected and punishable speech. For one compelling account, see Jacob Mchangama’s forthcoming book releasing later this month: “Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media.” Ironically, one of the consistently recurring issues concerns the regularly repeated claim that changed societal circumstances — in particular, new communications technologies — have made established free speech principles obsolete.

(Video) Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of the American Debate

To be sure, changing factual developments are pertinent in evaluating how free speech principles should be enforced in particular circumstances. Whether certain speech directly threatens imminent, serious harm that can’t be averted without restricting the speech — hence justifying the restriction under modern free speech principles — depends on the factual details surrounding the speech. For example, new technology may facilitate “deepfakes” that could be restricted as defamation or fraud, whereas such restrictions might not be warranted for less sophisticated false communications, because deepfakes are more likely to mislead reasonable viewers.

The recent surge in social justice activism has depended on robust free speech.

(Video) Free Speech Violations on College Campuses | Greg Lukianoff

In contrast with the changing factual circumstances to which free speech principles and rationales are applied, what is the basis for claiming that these underlying principles or rationales themselves should be changed? Experience around the world and throughout history demonstrates that when a government has been granted more discretion to restrict speech than under the current speech-protective principles, it predictably wields that discretion disproportionately to the disadvantage of minority views and voices. Far from being outdated, the current principles are more important now than ever, so that traditionally marginalized people and perspectives are vigorously protected. The recent surge in social justice activism — along with all other movements for greater equality and inclusivity throughout history — has depended on robust free speech, and would be impeded by rollbacks of such freedom based on the claim that they are somehow “outdated.”

Just as modern speech-protective principles stand the test of time, the same is true of the classic rationales for free speech, which recognize its crucial and enduring role in promoting the search for truth, democratic self-government, and individual autonomy. Surely these goals themselves are not outdated, nor is the reason for preferring free speech to censorship (beyond the limited circumstances permitted by contemporary speech-protective principles) as a vehicle for pursuing them: free speech will not necessarily secure such goals, but censorship will necessarily undermine them.

Those who criticize freedom of speech correctly note that it does not guarantee that truth will ultimately prevail in the proverbial “marketplace of ideas.” What such critics generally fail to note, however, is what censorship does guarantee about the search for truth: under a censorial regime, any truth that challenges government policies or officials is especially unlikely to prevail. Historically, governments have wielded censorship power precisely as one would expect: to suppress speakers who dissent from current orthodoxy and advocate reform – from abolitionists through Black Lives Matter activists. This pattern, which constitutes an important reason to support freedom of speech, is no more “outdated” than any other pro-speech rationales. For example, all over the country, BLM protesters, as well as journalists who cover them and legal observers who seek to protect their rights, have been subject to unwarranted suppression. No wonder so many leading crusaders for racial justice and other human rights causes have celebrated free speech and decried censorship.

(Video) Academic Freedom Alliance with Keith Whittington: So to Speak podcast

Under a censorial regime, any truth that challenges government policies or officials is especially unlikely to prevail.

(Video) The Battle Over Free Speech on College Campuses

Likewise, it is hard to fathom what reason could support the claim that free speech’s essential role in facilitating democracy is somehow “outdated.” As the Supreme Court declared, freedom of speech about public affairs entails “more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.” Even though freedom of speech shields some expression, such as disinformation, which may adversely impact our democracy, government censorship of such speech (beyond the strictly limited categories of false factual statements that are now punishable) is diametrically antithetical to democratic values. As the Supreme Court explained in a 2000 decision: “The Constitution exists precisely so that . . . judgments [about debatable matters] . . . can be formed, tested, and expressed. . . . [T]hese judgments are for the individual to make, not for the Government to decree, even with the mandate or approval of a majority.”

Finally, it is difficult to imagine why freedom of speech might even arguably be outdated as a means to promote individual autonomy. Echoing esteemed philosophers, the Supreme Court repeatedly has recognized that free speech has intrinsic value as an essential prerequisite for individual self-actualization, in addition to its key instrumental roles in promoting truth and self-government. As the Supreme Court stated in a 2000 decision, “The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.”

In sum, for all its shortcomings and risks, freedom of speech is far more effective than censorship in advancing truth, democracy, and individual autonomy – not to mention all other human rights. It is the anti-free-speech arguments that are outdated. Those arguments are not only outdated today; they have been wrong every one of the many times they have been made throughout history, including in response to every new communications technology, dating back to the printing press.

Greg Lukianoff: John Stuart Mill’s central arguments in “On Liberty” remain undefeated, including one of his strongest arguments in favor of freedom of speech — Mill’s trident — of which I have never heard a persuasive refutation.

(Video) ‘David French-ism’: So to Speak podcast

Mill’s trident holds that, for any given belief, there are three options:

  1. You are wrong; in which case freedom of speech is essential to allow people to correct you.
  2. You are partially correct; in which case you need freedom of speech and contrary viewpoints to help you get a more precise understanding of what the truth really is.
  3. You are 100% correct. In this unlikely event, you still need people to argue with you, to try to contradict you, and to try to prove you wrong. Why? Because if you never have to defend your points of view, there is a very good chance you don’t really understand them, and that you hold them the same way you would hold a prejudice or superstition. It’s only through arguing with contrary viewpoints that you come to understand why what you believe is true.

FAQs

What is and isn't free speech? ›

Categories of speech that are given lesser or no protection by the First Amendment (and therefore may be restricted) include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats, and commercial ...

Should we have free speech? ›

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It reinforces all other human rights, allowing society to develop and progress. The ability to express our opinion and speak freely is essential to bring about change in society. Free speech is important for many other reasons.

What is the point of freedom of speech? ›

Enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of speech grants all Americans the liberty to criticize the government and speak their minds without fear of being censored or persecuted.

Is free speech a human right? ›

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, there are governments and individuals in positions of power around the globe that threaten this right. A number of freedoms fall under the category of freedom of expression.

What are the limits to free speech? ›

Second, a few narrow categories of speech are not protected from government restrictions. The main such categories are incitement, defamation, fraud, obscenity, child pornography, fighting words, and threats.

How freedom of speech is being violated? ›

Certain categories of speech are completely unprotected by the First Amendment. That list includes (i) child pornography, (ii) obscenity, and (iii) “fighting words” or “true threats.”

Who benefits from freedom of speech Who loses? ›

Who benefits and who loses from freedom of speech might seem obvious; those who exercise their freedom of speech must be the "winners", and those who might suffer because that speech is detrimental to them must be the "losers". If nobody suffers from freedom of speech, then nobody loses and there is only a benefit.

Why freedom of speech is important for the media? ›

Freedom of expression gives special rights and duties to the media. The media inform society on matters of public interest and create an important platform for public debate, scrutiny and reflection. Therefore, independent media and quality journalism are considered to be the “watchdog” of a democratic society.

What is a good example of freedom of speech? ›

This includes the right to express your views aloud (for example through public protest and demonstrations) or through: published articles, books or leaflets. television or radio broadcasting. works of art.

Is freedom of speech necessary debate? ›

Answer: Yes, The Constitution of India in Article 19(1)(a) provides the right of freedom with the view of guaranteeing individual rights that were considered vital by the framers of the constitution. The right to freedom in Article 19 guarantees the freedom of speech and expression, as one of its six freedoms.

Why is freedom of speech important to students? ›

It matters because it: exposes students to new and challenging ideas. encourages robust but civil debate which respects and understands different viewpoints.

Is free speech absolute? ›

The right to free speech is not absolute. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government sometimes may be allowed to limit speech. Historically, a fundamental distinction arose between the content of speech and the means whereby that speech is expressed.

What is not covered by free speech? ›

Freedom of speech does not include the right:

To incite imminent lawless action. Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969). To make or distribute obscene materials.

How does social media affect freedom of speech? ›

Social media is a powerful tool of communication. It allows everyone from all sides of the platform to express themselves. Generally speaking, this is a good way to make the freedom of speech and information accessible to all. However, this perspective only works under the light of positive social media use.

What should be the limits of freedom of speech in social media? ›

Although we are free to say what we want, we are not allowed to express any opinion that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national orientation, or disability (hate speech).

Can you abuse freedom of speech? ›

Governments have a duty to prohibit hateful, inciteful speech but many abuse their authority to silence peaceful dissent by passing laws criminalising freedom of expression.

Is freedom of speech and expression being violated by social platforms? ›

Current legal precedent conclusively establishes that social media users do not have a right to free speech on private social media platforms. Social media platforms are allowed to remove offending content when done in accordance with their stated policies as permitted by Sec.

How do you ensure freedom of speech? ›

Proactive tips for promoting free speech and inclusion
  1. EDUCATE. ...
  2. ARTICULATE VALUES. ...
  3. SUPPORT SPEECH. ...
  4. SUPPORT FACULTY. ...
  5. SPEAK OUT. ...
  6. FACILITATE DIALOGUE. ...
  7. LISTEN. ...
  8. PRODUCTIVE ENGAGEMENT.

Is freedom of speech negative? ›

In its negative form, freedom of speech implies that government stay out of the way in terms of individuals exercising speech. which people share in common that enable them to come to a certain degree of agreement in certain circumstances and disagreement in others.

Is freedom of speech necessary in a free society advantages and disadvantages? ›

In a nutshell, freedom of speech, once respected and guaranteed by law, is essential for a healthy society as it helps adjust the quality of the government and protect people from injustice. That is why it should be encouraged more widely.

Who doesn't have freedom of speech? ›

According to Amnesty International, freedom of expression is significantly limited in China and North Korea. Freedom of speech has improved in Myanmar in recent years, but significant challenges remain.

Is freedom of speech necessary for a nation to grow essay? ›

Democracy is based profoundly on the right for people to express their views. Freedom of speech is a basic human right in all free society, it is essential in decision making from parliament to community level. When this basic human right is threaten, people become very emotional and will do anything to protect it.

How does freedom of speech affect democracy? ›

For a free people to govern themselves, they must be free to express themselves -- openly, publicly, and repeatedly; in speech and in writing. The principle of free speech should be protected by a democracy's constitution, preventing the legislative or executive branches of government from imposing censorship.

Should there be a limit to media freedom? ›

Why Media should be regulated? Freedom in any context is never absolute. Freedom of Media is essential but rising concerns of misinformation, data manipulation, fake news, populism etc. in the current environment are making authorities to place regulations on it to some extent.

How does freedom of speech improve a society? ›

Freedom of speech protects your right to say things that are disagreeable. It gives you—and everyone else—the right to criticize government policies and actions.

Does freedom of speech apply everywhere? ›

It applies to federal, state, and local government actors. This is a broad category that includes not only lawmakers and elected officials, but also public schools and universities, courts, and police officers. It does not include private citizens, businesses, and organizations.

What is the importance of freedom in our life? ›

With freedom,we are allowed to do whatever we choose to,in order to improve our lives,financial situations,and the world. This is why freedom is so important — it keeps our world running,often without us being aware of it. Freedom also creates and embraces diversity,because all people are unique.

What speech is not protected? ›

Obscenity. Fighting words. Defamation (including libel and slander) Child pornography.

What is an example of the freedom of speech? ›

Freedom of speech includes the right:

Of students to wear black armbands to school to protest a war (“Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate.”). Tinker v. Des Moines, 393 U.S. 503 (1969). To use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages.

What is protected by freedom of speech? ›

The right to freedom of speech allows individuals to express themselves without government interference or regulation. The Supreme Court requires the government to provide substantial justification for the interference with the right of free speech where it attempts to regulate the content of the speech.

Can freedom of speech be limited? ›

Government can limit some protected speech by imposing "time, place and manner" restrictions. This is most commonly done by requiring permits for meetings, rallies and demonstrations. But a permit cannot be unreasonably withheld, nor can it be denied based on content of the speech.

Can you yell fire in a theater? ›

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic...

Is freedom of speech absolute? ›

The right to free speech is not absolute. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the government sometimes may be allowed to limit speech. Historically, a fundamental distinction arose between the content of speech and the means whereby that speech is expressed.

Where does freedom of speech end? ›

To be sure, free speech is an immutable right protected by the First Amendment, which provides that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech….” But the right to free speech ends where it begins: with the plain language of the Constitution which guarantees it.

Why freedom of speech is important for the media? ›

Freedom of expression gives special rights and duties to the media. The media inform society on matters of public interest and create an important platform for public debate, scrutiny and reflection. Therefore, independent media and quality journalism are considered to be the “watchdog” of a democratic society.

Is freedom of speech necessary debate? ›

Answer: Yes, The Constitution of India in Article 19(1)(a) provides the right of freedom with the view of guaranteeing individual rights that were considered vital by the framers of the constitution. The right to freedom in Article 19 guarantees the freedom of speech and expression, as one of its six freedoms.

What is another word for freedom of speech? ›

synonyms for freedom speech
  • free speech.
  • freedom of expression.
  • lack of censorship.

Who fought for freedom of speech? ›

A succession of English thinkers was at the forefront of early discussion on a right to freedom of expression, among them John Milton (1608–74) and John Locke (1632–1704). Locke established the individual as the unit of value and the bearer of rights to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

Is freedom of speech a right or liberty? ›

Amendment I

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.

How many countries have freedom of speech? ›

Freedom of speech is granted unambiguous protection in international law by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which is binding on around 150 nations.

Should freedom of speech be limited on social media? ›

Censorship of social media speech may not outweigh the benefit of forbidding a particular speech, but allowing complete free speech on social media may also have negative impacts, such as fostering cyber bullying or hate speech.

Does social media Help free speech? ›

Social media is a powerful tool of communication. It allows everyone from all sides of the platform to express themselves. Generally speaking, this is a good way to make the freedom of speech and information accessible to all. However, this perspective only works under the light of positive social media use.

Why is freedom of speech important to students? ›

It matters because it: exposes students to new and challenging ideas. encourages robust but civil debate which respects and understands different viewpoints.

Videos

1. HATE: Why We Should Resist it With Free Speech, Not Censorship, Nadine Strossen
(Claremont McKenna College)
2. The 100th episode: The state of free speech in America: So to Speak podcast
(Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression)
3. A history of Western censorship with Eric Berkowitz: So to Speak podcast
(Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression)
4. Free Speech on Campus
(American University School of Public Affairs)
5. Jonathan Rauch Reminds Us Why Free Speech is the Only Safe Space for Minorities
(American University School of Public Affairs)
6. Hate Speech On Campus panel
(University of Delaware)

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