Freedom of Speech in the United States

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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 of what freedom of speech means and where to draw the line on what it protects.

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Freedom of speech is an essential right that grants all Americans the liberty to criticize the government and speak their minds without the fear of being censored. However, it is time to realize that speech directing hatred and vitriol at marginalized people does not advance freedom or liberty.

Allowing hate speech to be protected by the constitution leads to a hostile environment for those it is directed at, as well as it rallies harm and violence against innocent individuals of our society. This topic is often brought before our judicial branch of government, highlighting the relevance to society today. Other countries have worked hard to build an inclusive environment for their citizens and denounce hate speech. Understanding the importance of the US constitution is crucial, however there is room for growth and evolution with current societal beliefs.

Exploring the union of ideas and events that led to the declaration of “freedom of speech and of the press” are important influences in the development of the principle and where it stands today. Freedom of speech in America began off the basis of the English Bill of Rights enacted in 1689 from the English Parliament. According to David Bogen, the colonies attempted to follow the Parliament and secure freedom of speech in legislative debate (1). This is emphasized by the Articles of Confederation directing that “Freedom of speech and debate in Congress shall not be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Congress….” (2). Declaring these principles allowed politicians to gain independence and protection against punishment for criticizing a legislator and avoid censorship by the government. Moving this privilege forward began with the inclusion of common individuals. It is this cross over that has led to a more controversial discussion. When dealing with free speech in the legislature, it was confined to an environment where it was powerless to cause any other harm. However, with the expansion of freedom of speech to society generally, the potential of speech to cause harm increased greatly. The final form of the first amendment states, “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech or of the press” (3). This brings up a contradictory element of freedom of speech. In the federal system, only Congress can set national limits on speech; for example, making laws regulating commercial speech and copyright laws. However, the language of the first amendment clearly restricts Congress from interfering with freedom of speech. Bogen sheds some light on this paradox stating, “Under the Constitution only the whole body of the people acting through Congress even arguably has the power to restrict speech” (1). In conclusion, the fight for freedom of speech dates back to the regulations imposed on speech in England and Americans need for protection against prior restraints.

The progressive era brought around a time of change for the political status of expression rights. During this time legislatures began to discuss proposals limiting the scope of expression rights, however measures like this were rarely passed. This era also showed a transition in how individuals were using the constitution as a defense for free speech. According to Mark Graber, “Leading progressive thinkers insisted the public policy should promote the social interests of the community and that these interests could best be determined by elected officials and social science experts” (4). This highlights the discontent for the judiciary system having control over the fundamental principles of American government. Instead the policies should be flexible for revision when noticing consequences, they entail when acted upon. Grab states, “This interpretation of the nature of truth has been called ‘instrumentalism’ because the validity of concepts is measured by their observable consequences, rather than logical structure” (4). This means that the new intellectuals believe the laws should be ever changing in relation to the effect and consequences seen by the civilian population.

The argument of censorship in America has been apart the first amendments history since its institution. This debate is relevant to all citizens of The United States, especially minorities or other parties facing discrimination. Regulating “hate speech” eliminates both the direct and indirect harm that comes to the recipients. For some individuals, verbal abuse can render the workplace and educational environments unbearable. This utilitarianism value rests on the fact that the positive feelings invoked by hate speech is greatly outweighed by the disgust and fear that minorities feel by falling victim. In addition, constitutionalists, extremist and internet users find themselves on the same side of the argument, protecting speech and their ability to preach content without repercussions. They believe that freedom of speech is operating as a democratic principle and a democracy cannot legitimately restrict speech within public discourse, solely on grounds of the undesirable worldviews expressed.

Allowing hate speech to fall under the guise of freedom of speech fosters a hostile environment for minorities, allowing their human dignity to be vandalized. In recent years, this controversy has been played out on college campuses. College campuses provide an environment where individuals can be fluid with their social markers, such as lifestyle preferences and cultural habits. According to Peter Scott, “The increased diversity on campuses has had important implications for debates about ‘free speech’ and ‘political correctness’. The exercise of free speech that appears to threaten their identity or culture and even their still precarious foothold in higher education can easily be interpreted as intolerable” (5). Scott recognizes that no speech is absolute and college campuses do not follow the “anything goes” model. There are sensitives and vulnerabilities that should be respected. This is seen by students campaigning for campus buildings to be renamed, protesting controversial speakers on campus, and mutual respect within the academic community. It is also important that these core components of the university experience not be invoked too often to protect the progressive science and enlightenment occurring within students. A strong balance must be reached to have the best environment to foster the learning experience, which is based on the ability to have free thoughts.

One way to ensure a respectable balance is to have improved responses from people in positions of power when the controversial topic arises. There has been a rise in frequency of hateful incidents on college campuses over the past two years. According to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, “There has been a 77% increase in White supremacist propaganda during the 2017-18 school year, including nooses hung on trees to swastikas painted on Jewish professor’s office walls” (6). These actions are terrorizing and detrimental to students and professors who are trying to increase the wealth of the country they live in. Even in wake of these unsetting action, campus leaders are still stumbling in their responses, not fully condemning the hateful content of the messages. This leaves room for these ideas to be seeding in other vulnerable people’s heads and grow in to a much bigger problem. Individuals involved are not seeing any consequences for their actions which encourages them to continue at even larger extremes. Such neutral statements may be a way to combat the concerns regarding navigating free speech. However, free speech should not be positioned against hate speech, as if protecting free speech means there are constraints on denouncing hate. Strong responses are becoming more apparent, such as the vice president at Cornell for student life Ryan Lombardi expressing his “revulsion” (6) at a swastika being marked in the snow, and how denouncing hate is a “shared responsibility” (6). This answer helps assert core community values that knit the campus closer together rather than increase the divide. In addition to campus leaders speaking out, there needs to be more training for residential assistants and resources available for students to report or seek counseling for such events. Every person, no matter their race, religion, or gender deserve a supportive, all-inclusive learning environment to better themselves and in turn the world around them.

Groups that are targeted for hateful expressions due to race, religion, or ethnicity usually develop into victims of hate-related incidents. Hate speech threatens unlawful harm and incites violence towards members of these targeted groups. According to the 2017 FBI report ove hate crimes, “There were 7,106 single-bias incidents involving 8,493 victims. A percent distribution of victims by bias type shows that 59.6 percent of victims were targeted because of the offenders’ race/ethnicity/ancestry bias; 20.6 percent were targeted because of the offenders’ religious bias; 15.8 percent were victimized because of the offenders’ sexual-orientation bias” (7). It would be naive to deny the relationship between hate speech and the hate crimes that follow. Governments functions are to protect individuals threatened with immediate violence and preserve social conditions that foster individual autonomy. Implementing stronger restrictions on these kinds of expression can save targeted individuals from immediate physical harm as well has serious psychological consequences. Eric Rosenberg highlights the detrimental effects hate speech and racism have on not only the individual but more importantly society. Egalitarianism is a doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities (8). It is a compelling ideal that emphasizes the rights that all people deserve and should not be sacrificed for the small gain of others. Rosenberg states, “The failure of the legal system to redress the harms of racism, and of racial insults, conveys to all the lesson that egalitarianism is not a fundamental principle; the law, through inaction, implicitly teaches that respect for individuals is of little importance” (8). This is confirmed in the increase of white supremist groups and religious bases being vandalized or destroyed. One of the most prominent cases of society being directed to ignore egalitarianism was made by President Trump concerning the Charlottesville rally in 2018. President Trump refused to outright condemn the white nationalists and even stated, “You also had people that were very fine people, on both sides” (9). This type of apathetic response only encourages extremists that there will be consequences for their actions and they can go about striping other people’s human dignities. The common saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”, minimizes the value that words have. However, one cannot protect free speech and demise hate speech by denying the power of speech.

One driving force behind the support for restricting hate speech is the success other countries have found and their avoidance to becoming an oppressive society. The fear Americans have is that they will be silenced, and the government will have complete censorship over all speech outlets.

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Freedom of Speech in The United States. (2020, May 15). Retrieved from