The Consequences of Free Speech

by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

On a recent thread, the topic of politically correct speech as it relates to free speech came up. As with many of the more interesting threads on this blog, the topic came about from meandering rather than the subject proper of the thread. The subject was brought back to fore in my mind this morning when I read this: How Free Speech Died on Campus by  Sohrab Ahmari, published on The Wall Street Journal ( It seems there are a lot of misconceptions about what constitutes free speech, the limitations thereon and the consequences thereof.

The core of the American free speech right and tradition is codified in the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Congress shall make no law [. . . ] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press[.]”

The U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Art. 19, states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

This has implications that apply to public discourse.  Let us consider these implications.

What is free speech?  I think the Universal Declaration gets to the heart of the idea with the words “freedom of opinion and expression”. You are free to think what you like and express your thoughts. The marketplace of ideas – a consequence of freedom of speech – relies upon this. Everyone says what they like and may the best idea/argument win. However, that being said, there are some limitations on free speech that are universally accepted in domestic and international jurisprudence.  Namely the exceptions of defamation (lying about someone for gain and/or profit) and incitement language (encouraging others to violence or panic). Many countries also recognize sedition (calling for the overthrow of government) as unacceptable as well. Consider the difference in these prohibitions and the different ways of addressing the 1st Amendment: the absolutist approach, the categorical approach and the balancing of interests approach.

All three approaches allow for restrictions on free speech. The absolutist approach takes the stance that literally no law prohibiting speech is permissible . . . except when the words are so intimately tied to a specific action like inciting panic or contracting for an illegal purpose as to be inseparable from the otherwise prohibited act itself. The categorical approach attempts to define what speech is or is not protected by assigning categories such as obscenity, fighting words, commercial speech and political speech. The balancing of interests approach in every case courts should weigh the individual’s interest in free expression against a valid governmental interest in restricting the speech in question with a thumb on the scale of justice in favor of free speech. Most modern jurists adopt either the categorical or the balancing approach as the absolutist approach is impractical. Personally, I’m somewhere in between those two analytical schools: circumstances should be considered, but some speech should be categorically protected like political free speech.

Defamation and incitement have sound public policy behind them. In the case of defamation, it arises from the long respected notion in torts that someone should not be able to lie about another to their detriment and/or for the defamer’s benefit. It’s a matter of equity. It has nothing to do with your feelings being hurt. There is a separate tort recognized in some jurisdictions called “Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress”. It is a very specific, very hard to prove tort where someone says things to or about someone with specific foreknowledge and the intent to cause the hearer or subject to suffer extreme emotional distress. It is a wilful tort and you must prove the speaker had mens rea (guilty mind) in causing the extreme emotional distress.

In the case of incitement, everyone knows the old trope about “yelling fire in a crowded theater”. Inciting panic or violence often ends up with innocent bystanders getting harmed either physically or by having their property destroyed and that is a matter of public safety as well as equity. Sedition, on the other hand, is a “political crime”. In the United States, a particularly odd political crime too considering the express language of the Declaration of Independence.

However, with these above noted exceptions, free speech means anything goes basically.  You are allowed to think and express your thoughts. This carries some broader implications.

As all people are free to express their thoughts and opinions, you are certainly going to hear things you disagree with or disapprove of or maybe even find insulting or offensive. That is simply a cost of the freedom. If you value free speech then you accept that you will be disagreed with, insulted and offended at some time. If you don’t accept this fact, then you value freedom of speech as long as you approve of what others say first and that, by definition, is not free.  If you cannot accept this and try to oppress others simply for having a different, insulting or offensive opinion, then you miss the point of free speech. The antidote for different ideas, just as it is for offense or insult, is more free speech. Make a rebuttal. Offer rejoinder for insult and offense. But everyone gets their say whether you personally like it or not. Respond. Don’t. It’s your choice. However, if you value freedom of speech, you’ll never try to censor. Even if the motive behind your thought is to crush an idea that is deeply offensive and indefensible. Motives don’t matter. Once you cross the line into censorship, you’ve abandoned criticism and counterargument for oppression. You will never beat a bad idea with oppression just like you’ll never stop a good idea with oppression. As the titular character V said in V for Vendetta, “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. There is an idea, Mr. Creedy – and ideas are bulletproof.” Ideas and arguments are not idea and argument proof though. That’s the whole notion behind the marketplace of ideas. This illustrates why the antidote to bad ideas and bad arguments is precisely more free speech – better ideas, better arguments.

Your feelings are not generally protected by law with the one exception in tort. They are subjective. They are your own reactions and you own them. They may or may not be rational.

This is part and parcel of what is wrong with the idea of politically correct speech. An idea that has crept on to what was once the bastion of free speech – American college campuses. Rather than interpret or summarize How Free Speech Died on Campus by  Sohrab Ahmari, I am simply going to direct your attention to it and suggest that you read it in full for a scathing example of “politically correct” speech regulations on college campuses and how it has gone wrong. It’s a short article, but dense and well worth the read, full of examples like;

At Western Michigan University, it is considered harassment to hold a ‘condescending sex-based attitude.’ That just about sums up the line ‘I think of all Harvard men as sissies” (from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel ‘This Side of Paradise’), a quote that was banned at Yale when students put it on a T-shirt.”

and astute observations like;

‘The people who believe that colleges and universities are places where we want less freedom of speech have won, Mr. Lukianoff says. ‘If anything, there should be even greater freedom of speech on college campuses. But now things have been turned around to give campus communities the expectation that if someone’s feelings are hurt by something that is said, the university will protect that person. As soon as you allow something as vague as Big Brother protecting your feelings, anything and everything can be punished.‘” [emphasis added]

Suffice it to say, in an academic environment, there is nothing more detrimental to learning than shutting down the marketplace of ideas because some pinheaded “risk management” administrator thinks someone’s feelings should get hurt by words they themselves are free to challenge. If this trend continues, our colleges and universities will become a global laughing stock.

Free speech must be protected at all costs.  It is how we speak truth to power, to others and to ourselves when we are interested in learning truths.  It can make you uncomfortable.  It will challenge you. It will piss you off. It will hurt your feelings.  Freedom isn’t free.  It comes with costs.  These are some of the costs that you pay for freedom of speech.  If you don’t like getting your feelings hurt? If you don’t like being challenged? Develop thicker skin, learn to counter what you don’t like, or be ready to have yet another important freedom eroded, but this time not in the name of (false) security, but the onus of political correctness and catering to the subjective over the objective. James Madison thought freedom of speech (and the press) was critical and the 1st Amendment the most important item in the Bill of Rights.  Maybe you should think about that too.

What do you think?

Think, mind you.  Not feel.  That being said, have at it.

Source(s): WSJ Online, U.S. Constitution, U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights

~submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger

237 thoughts on “The Consequences of Free Speech”

  1. Hi, Gene,

    by history, I assume this was meant for me: ” You certainly use a lot of words not to say anything of consequence or substance but at least you are consistent.

    I feel sorry for your kids.”

    Thus more dismissal. No argument, just dismissal. No rationality.

    But do any one of you old-timers here, male or female, have the balls to explain to Gene why that last comment was not only cheap, but despicable? Any of you?

  2. Hi, M Spindell,
    “I also agree that those who “for the best of reasons” would stifle what they deem as “hate speech” are barking up the wrong tree and I don’t agree with them.” I do agree with you. “Hate speech” laws are wrong-headed and just wrong. On political issues, what you call hate speech may be my political point.

    My stance against Affirmative Action is definitely racist, not because I think it should be done by economics where all would be raised, not because I’ve seen that it helps most the middle-class (all classes) and the rich, nor because I’ve seen that it fails too many black students by putting them where they are most likely to fail, but because I’m racist. /sarc.

  3. Hi, Gene,
    “I dismissed you because so far that’s what you’ve demonstrated your “arguments” merit. Your agreement is not required. If you need the definition of PC dumbed down, that’s also not my problem. I prefer accurate definitions. PC is a simplistic solution for a complex problem.” More dismissal, and you are exceptionally good at it. Succinct isn’t dumbed down, nor is verbose more accurate.

    “There is a difference between “telling” and “persuading” and that is what you holier than thou PC nitwits don’t seem to realize.” Yet arguments are always about persuading, and I used telling and argument in the same sentence. Perhaps I contradicted myself, while you failed to read further. Dismissal is telling, not arguing, and you’ve certainly spent a lot of time telling me rather than arguing my points. I know, I know, I have no points. So you’ve told me.

    “Your failure to understand the impropriety of censorship in both the institutional and societal forms is your failing.” The very fact that you consider racial slurs wrong is actually a result of “censorship” in societal forms; 90 years ago you and I would have a more than a greater chance to consider those slurs acceptable. Please don’t think you would be some paragon of virtue by your standards today if you were born 60 some odd years earlier, that’s hubris. If you would like to argue that societal forms are censorship and thus wrong, please do. You’ll have a lot of work ahead of you to justify, even argue, censorship on racial slurs.

    I will give you one form of what you call censorship by societal form, if you called my niece a nigger in my house, I would escort you out of my house with prejudice and brutality. But horrors that’s just censorship by societal form. You conflate things that shouldn’t be and call them by the same word. Censorship is a government function through the power of the gun and the handcuff (it’s metaphorical) and why “epithets of abuse” should never be codified. You haven’t looked up the phrase yet have you? Because it’s all about labeling and then dismissing. That’s the power of PC that destroys Free Speech, labeling and thus dismissing because of the label. You have much in common with those you fight. It’s why I wrote earlier “it’s not what you think, it’s how you think”.

    If there’s a PC nitwit in all this, it’s you, no matter your arguments because you belie them at every step. I await your dismissal.

  4. Gene, Mike S., OS,

    As a proponent of uncensored speech…… There are always consequences for any speech that is made…. Even as OS points out ludicrous speech….. I can avoid a snake by knowing that snakes bite…. They are not all venomous ….. But still you know what they are….. Unlike a two legged camellion …… They say what’s necessary to fit in and please…..only to turn around and be the most venomous snake of them all……

  5. On the upside of what has come to be called PC, it has at least sensitized many people to some hurtful words and phrases. Obviously, as George Carlin so eloquently pointed out, some of it has tipped over into the ludicrous.

  6. Perhaps Mike, but what term would you suggest in the alternative? PC is an accurate and apt term for the process of attempting to censor the speech of others based on content related to politics, but I have no opposition to a good neologism either.

  7. Gene, AY and OS,

    My apologies since perhaps I was not making my point clearly. I am decidedly for the freedom of speech, even the most repugnant kind. I also agree that those who “for the best of reasons” would stifle what they deem as “hate speech” are barking up the wrong tree and I don’t agree with them.
    My issue is with the use of the term “PC” itself, by people defending free speech. “PC” has origins with a movement that actually has tried to denude the people of their freedom, while empowering the Plutocracy. For those of us of good will to use the term as “shorthand” is disturbing to me because PC’s use empowers the bad guys. Surely the argument against censorship can be made without defining it in the term marketed by the Plutocracy to foster prejudice.

  8. Mike and Gene,
    Where many go wrong is to think the First Amendment and “freedom of speech” applies to private settings. This blog, for example, is not truly a public forum, but a blog owned by our host. This discussion goes on over at the Daily Kos blog all the time. If someone came into my house and engaged in rude speech, such as the rant Dr. Turley deleted, that person would find themselves escorted out forcibly.

    Free speech often has consequences. When one exercises the right to free speech, one must be prepared to deal with the consequences. The two young women who posted that photograph taken at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier have both been fired from their jobs due to backlash. Rush Limbaugh’s sponsors have been fleeing him in droves, enough that it has impacted the entire radio industry–they are bleeding sponsors and radio stocks have fallen off the cliff. Papa John’s owner, John Schnatter has been scrambling back from the edge of the precipice over which he pushed himself and his company.

    Now, fellow curmudgeons, carry on.

  9. Mike,

    While I agree with you in principle….. I’d much rather know if a snake is poisonous before I pick it up….. Not all snakes are a threat to ones life…. Only Those that pose to be one thing and are actually another….

    I will also add that racism is more covert up north than it is in most of the south….. Very little candy a$$ing …….

  10. Mike,

    Calling censorship by any other name is still censorship. You say your problem with the term is how some use it as a rationalization for hatred. That’s not my problem with the concept of PC, but I do understand the nature of that particular problem. Hatred is hatred and rationalizing it under any guise is simply stupid. However, if you wish to force silence on those who express hatred, you only drive it underground and that has far worse consequences in the long term than being annoyed by their hatred in the present. The problem with PC is the arrogance and futility of telling others how to exercise their free speech and the intimations of being the Thought Police. Challenging a thought and dictating terms are not the same thing. Or as I previously said, there is a difference between “tell” and “persuade”. Also between “tell”, “persuade” and “object”. If someone were to call you a kike, I’d object, I’d try to persuade them that wasn’t necessary, but I wouldn’t tell them they couldn’t say it or by extension think it. Couldn’t. Shouldn’t. I have no issue with shouldn’t, but can’t posses a real problem if you value free speech. The root of my problem with it is PC is simply another form of authoritarianism no matter which side of the political spectrum promulgates it. As a fellow iconoclast, I’m sure that distinction is not lost on you.

  11. If only it were really politically incorrect to promulgate hatred and abuse. It is only “politically incorrect” to use taboo words. Much the shame of our not being sufficiently wise to impose, and suffer, shame for the real offenses.

  12. Gene and AY,

    Again here is my problem with the use of the term PC to characterize speech that is innately hateful. I categorically oppose the banning of almost any speech, but by the same token using the term PC is tantamount to licensing the use of hateful speech. This was exactly why the PC concept was invented in Faux Conservative Think Tanks and promulgated by the radically Right Wing Elite, that has labored since 1964 to make racism and ethnic hatred acceptable mainstream discourse. I don’t think that accepting the propagandist branding of opposition to hatred as some idealistic fluff used by the effete, is a good idea.

    We have seen racist attacks on a sitting President become mainstream. While I would never ban those attacks, the term PC applied to those who would oppose those attacks and their arguments on the merits, lends an equivalence of their racism to the discussion. That Obama had so many policy areas that could be attacked successfully, yet the racism became an overarching theme, highlights how much we have backtracked in almost the last fifty years of public discourse. Were it not for the fact that that these attacks actually rallied women, people of color and people of a different sexuality, they would have succeeded in taking down a President, not for his policies, but for the color of his skin. Yes, this does illustrate that bringing hatred out in the open is an effective tactic for opposing it. My argument is not with free speech, but with the unfortunate use of a propaganda technique that muddies the water.

    I also would cite JT’s taking down of the comment by Smith calling police officers “pigs” as being inappropriate and uncivil. Surely among us all there is no one with as pristine a free speech record as Jonathan’s and certainly this blog is a paradigm of free speech. How would we feel if we had someone constantly commenting using terms like: “nigger”, “kike”, “raghead”, “Chink” or “curry breath” in posts meant to demean. We know that Nick wouldn’t mind being called a “wop”, or a “guinea”, but I must admit I’m not favorably disposed to someone calling me a “kike” and never had been. I’m not for censoring these usages on this blog, but I’m also not for calling out these uses derogatorily being labelled PC. I hope you get the nuance.

  13. “Free Speech is all about telling others what they should think, what the hell is an argument otherwise?”

    You can tell a rock to roll and it will do nothing.

    You can use the lever of argumentation to persuade a rock to roll.

    It’s not my problem if you don’t have a strong lever, Ariel.

    There is a difference between “telling” and “persuading” and that is what you holier than thou PC nitwits don’t seem to realize. “Telling” comes with the expectation of compliance. Unless someone is your child, telling them to do something and expecting compliance “because [you] said so”? Is both paternalistic and ridiculous. “Just because I don’t like it, don’t do it” – which to be clear is the crux of your Eskimo “argument” for PC and your “arguments” since – is not a sufficiently persuasive argument. Your personal satisfaction with others is not guaranteed in life and it’s pretty damn egotistical to think otherwise.

    And I’m glad you liked your pro-PC theme song so much it flustered you into some “I know you are but what am I”.

    That’s really funny.

  14. OK, I skimmed here, but didn’t read very deeply. I realized I agree with Gene H’s position in the article that started the thread. I can’t remember how the various ad hominem arguments started, nor could I keep them straight. I was very interested to see the collection of Bar Admissions from Swarthmore Dad. I tried to remember what state Swarthmore was in. (The mind is a dubious place to spend one’s free time, ain’t?) And then I remembered growing up Jewish (from one out of three families) in a small anti-Semitic racist town in New Jersey where everybody but one family (Black) was white Catholic either Italian or Polish in descent. In the 50s. With a brother handicapped from polio so that walking him to school I had to be both left- and right-flank defense. UNTIL a kid named, strangely enough, “Piggy” started walking with us. Now Piggy was from the one Black family in town. He was full eight inches taller than us and remarkably powerful — a stereotype from a 1950s movie, if you will. The first day he walked us to school the kids went from calling us kikes and Jesus-killers to calling us Nigger-lovers. BUT when one of them hopped off his bike to attack us, counting on help from the two other kids walking on that block, Piggy picked the instigator up bodily and slammed him (trespassionally) into Mrs. Bingham’s fence with a scowl on his face. So the kid got back on his bike and rode away. What was remarkable was what the other two did, because (a) they had been name-calling with the instigator at the “kikes, Jesus-killers” level but they saw the action; and (b) they never graduated to “Nigger-lovers” after seeing the body-slam into the fence. They suddenly became aware of the time and ran to school so fast (only a few blocks by that point) they were lost in the crowd that stood outside waiting for the bell to ring.

    My brother and I were amazed at the whole thing, and I only remembered this one after reading this thread. Piggy didn’t stop the name-calling with punishment. He made sure the name-calling did not become a call to action. That discouraged all the name-calling on that particular day.

    If people who know they can be targeted have faith in the “big guns systems” organized in their societies, THEN they can use that good old “sticks and stones” motif and go through life with great respect for freedom of speech. If, however, they cannot trust their own societies to do as well as a ten-year-old Black kid from New Jersey in 1957 was able to do, there may be a lot of challenge to free speech that can actually take on the SOUND of righteousness.

    That’s the problem. It does sound good to ban insults, doesn’t it? Nobody would even want us to try that if we knew without fear that our society was utterly devoted to protecting its members from the depredations that are often brought on by hate talk.

    In a society where the peddlers of the hatred and insults were naturally despised, disrespected and disdained, speech would really be free.

  15. Hi, Gene,

    That James Brown video was so refreshing. I had no idea you could be so self-deprecating. Realizing your own failings, talking so loud but saying nothing (all sound and fury, signifying nothing), is movement in the direction to reasonable discourse. May you so continue…

  16. So: “Your failure to understand the impropriety of censorship in both the institutional and societal forms is your failing.” So Kike, Wop, Spic, Mick, and Nigger are okay by you? Those terms dropped first by societal proscription, later by governmental, the former being as wrong as the latter by your terms as quoted? You of course wouldn’t stop anyone in your home calling your black nephew a “nigger” over free speech issues. I have a black nephew.

    See your ego comes through: “Self-censorship? Is left up to each “self”. Not what you think a person should self-censor but by definition what they think they should self-censor. If you’re a free speech absolutist as you claim, that should be abundantly clear, but as in your earlier “arguments” you’ve demonstrated you haven’t really thought this through very well because it interferes with your proclivity to tell others how they should speak and by extension how they should think.”

    First, nowhere did I write “”Self-censorship? Is left up to each “self”. Not what you think a person should self-censor but by definition what they think they should self-censor.” It’s you’re take of my words, not my words. I realize you’re taking from my “not what you think but how you think”, but you misunderstand the meaning. “How you think” is dialectic, it’s the art of process of correct reasoning, and that isn’t that we end at the same point to determine correctness (Marx was an ass on this point). Dialectic is not labeling, it’s not jumping to conclusions, it’s not twisting words to make them fit humpty dumpty. You have failed over and over again in that respect. You leap so far that I fear you’ll break a leg. I’ve done that, it really hurts.

    Second, I have thought it through, and much more deeply than you, and realize that there are other factors I have to consider regarding Free Speech. Overwhelmingly, I say screw feelings, yet like you I’m reticent to call someone Nigger, Spic, Wop, Mick, or Kike. I recognize that that is feelings and societal proscription, you somehow think it isn’t censorship by “societal forms”, really? You spoke to how these words were wrong and deservedly so but they only became wrong by “societal forms”. Are you any different embracing the “societal forms” of now than then? Other than censorship…

    Free Speech is all about telling others what they should think, what the hell is an argument otherwise? Not to convince? A moment of masturbation? Free Speech is all about trying at least to show others the wrongness of their argument, and even more to convince, to change as you revealed by “educator”. However, it shouldn’t rise to the hubris of educator, as you should think that you might learn something from the other unless of course you are the height of all experience, knowledge, and wisdom. A rose can be found on a dung heap unless you so fixate on the dung heap that the rose goes unnoticed. It wasn’t the fault of the dung heap or the rose, but yours.

    Really, your breadth and depth can be measured by one use of a ruler. A yardstick would be so wasted.

    1. Whatever a person does or says will be answer for by the one who made all. The fear of God has people fear to do bad to anyone. Don’t fear that whoever will fear Gods glory that Moses almost saw from Gods face. It is the spirit that is in whoever saying whatever word. Nakedness or sex should never be censored. That is what God made anyway.

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