Norman Warwick explores    


In the aftermath of the violent assault on Sir Salman Rushdie recently I browsed the net, a dangerous activity at the bvest of times, to fins something authorative to say about the concept of freedom of speech. I wondered if permission to speak freely is granted only to those who can articulate their argument or are expert on their subject. Or does free speech allow us carte blanche to say I am right and you are wrong. Does libertad de expresión allow me to deliberately defame? If I claim si fiduciam, am I above the law? If I use my right to eonlon-ui jayu must I express a world view? And where are the borders and boundaries of Svoboda slova? And, finally, is the concept of Freedom Of Speech in France, Spain, Italy, Korea and Russia the same as that held in the UK? Well, they all have a phrase for it, as you can see here

A rear view of people with placards and posters on global strike for climate change.

There is an essay by Mark Satta published on line at a site called 1000-Word Philosophy which as its name suggests invites students and writers to explain their philosophy and attitudes and justify them to the rest of the world..

I was looking for something to clarify all the implaications of a phrase we in here on Lanzarote, as we did when living in the UK, hold close to our hearts.

Mark Satta is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. He received his PhD in Philosophy from Purdue University and his JD from Harvard Law School. Some of his philosophical research interests include philosophy of law, epistemology, bioethics, and philosophy of language and can be found  at but he opens his argument at 1000-word philosophy by asking some pertinent questions.

Want to criticize your government? Burn a flag? Wear a t-shirt that says f**k the draft?

Thanks to freedom of speech, in many places you can.[1]

But what exactly is freedom of speech? And what does it permit us to say? This essay will review some influential answers to these questions.

Freedom of speech, sometimes called freedom of expression, is a legal right to express many beliefs and ideas without government interference or punishment. This freedom does not typically prevent private entities (e.g., ordinary citizens or private organizations) from limiting speech.[2]

If freedom of speech prevented private entities from limiting speech, freedom of speech could not be applied consistently because the freedom of speech includes the ability not to speak.[3] So, e.g., if a newspaper was forced to publish every piece of writing submitted to it, then that newspaper would lose some ability to not speak. Freedom of speech also includes the right not to listen to or receive other people’s messages.[4] 

The fact that freedom of speech only prevents government interference doesn’t entail that freedom of speech is irrelevant to action by private entities. Some argue that certain private entities ought to voluntarily conform to legal standards for speech protection: e.g., that private universities should conform to the free speech standards legally required by public universities.[5] 

Freedom of speech is also sometimes understood more broadly as a social value.

Freedom of speech is not an unlimited right. All governments impose some limits on what kinds of speech they will protect. This is because freedom of speech, like all rights, must be balanced against other rights and values.

Common types of speech not protected by freedom of speech include threats of violence, false advertising, and defamation (i.e., false statements that unjustly harm someone’s reputation).[6]

Many democratic nations do not protect hate speech (i.e., speech intended to threaten, degrade, or incite hatred against a group or group member based on group prejudice). But some other nations, including the United States, treat hate speech as protected speech. Whether hate speech should receive free speech protection has been much debated in recent years.[7]

Free Speech newspaper headline on a copy of the United States Constitution

 But even protected speech can be limited to an extent by the government: e.g., freedom of speech does not permit just anyone to enter a military base or a class at a public university and start talking. This is true because, even though military bases and public universities are government-run, these spaces seek to achieve other important goals that justify limiting free speech.

Freedom of speech gives you much greater latitude in a public park, a public sidewalk, or in your own home. But even in public places like parks and sidewalks, freedom of speech allows for content-neutral restrictions on speech: e.g., a town can have a noise ordinance banning playing loud music in parks near residential neighborhoods after midnight.

But it is important that these restrictions be content- and viewpoint-neutral.[8] Thus, a town could not pass an ordinance limiting speech only about certain topics or from certain perspectives in the park. Such a rule would discriminate based on the content or viewpoint of the speech. An important part of freedom of speech is that the government cannot restrict speech just because it doesn’t like the topics or agree with the speaker. Freedom of speech also doesn’t allow for the suppression of ideas simply because those ideas are unpopular.

Freedom of speech protects people against two different types of government interference: prior restraint and subsequent punishment.

A prior restraint prevents you from speaking: it restrains your speech prior to it being made. At one point, many legal scholars thought that freedom of speech meant only freedom from prior restraint.[13] That is no longer true.

Today, most everyone believes that freedom of speech protects people not only from prior restraint, but also from subsequent punishment (i.e., from being legally sanctioned for protected speech). This makes freedom of speech more robust because it protects people not only from having their protected speech restrained, but also from having their protected speech punished by the government.

Philosophers and legal scholars have given many different explanations for why free speech is important. Many scholars think there are multiple good reasons why we protect free speech.[14]

Three common rationales for free speech protections are that they help us (1) discover truth, (2) respect human autonomy, and (3) preserve democracy by allowing criticism of government.

Influential advocates of the idea that free speech helps us discover truth include writer John Milton, philosopher John Stuart Mill, and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis.[15]

One common form of the truth discovery argument is that the best way to overcome false speech is with more speech.[16] Given what we know about how viral misinformation works, such a claim can appear implausible.[17] But even if this version of the truth discovery argument is mistaken, there may be weaker forms of a truth-preservation principle that provide us with good reason to safeguard free speech: e.g., someone might argue that the fallibility of political leaders requires them to avoid suppressing others’ ideas.

Freedom of speech is valuable. Protecting it first requires understanding it.

My own unconstructed but long held views on the matter I usually express by saying, if you cling to freedom of speech you must afford others the same right whether or not you agree with what they say, I do know that any time I have got into a fight it has begun at exactly the moment I realised I had overstepped the line between free speech and gratuitous insult.

I have quoted Mark´s essay in full, and wonder if I have transgressed any notions of freedom of speech in doing so? He has correctly quoted his supporting sources at various points as do I, too, at the foot of this article which you can also find at

[1] See, e.g., Brandenburg v. OhioTexas v. Johnson, and Cohen v. California.

[2] See, e.g., U.S. Const. Amend I.

[3] Gaebler 1982.

[4] Corbin 2009.

[5] Chemerinsky and Gillman 2017.

[6] Maras 2015Redish and Voils 2017, and Post 1986.

[7] See, e.g., Waldron 2012 and Strossen 2018.

[8] Jacobs 2003.

[9] Tushnet, Chen, and Blocher 2017.

[10] See, e.g., Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston.

[11] Hasen 2011.

[12] Liptak 2017.

[13] Rabban 1981Healy 2013.

[14] Greenawalt 1989.

[15] Milton 1644 (reprinted 1918)Mill 1859Abrams v. United States (Holmes, J. dissenting), Whitney v. California (Brandeis, J. concurring).

[16] See, e.g., Milton 1644 (reprinted 1918)Whitney v. California (Brandeis, J. concurring).

[17] Wu 2018.

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