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The Right to Free Speech When it Offends

Updated on June 24, 2015

Should All Be Allowed to Speak Freely?

Freedom of Speech is a basic right we all agree on; in theory. We find ourselves struggling with the fair application of this right. We want to speak our minds but we also feel we have the right to determine to what extend others may speak their own.

The current debate over flying the Confederate flag, the debate over how far Westboro Baptist should be allowed to go beyond the bounds of common decency are prime examples of when we feel that others abuse the right to their freedoms. But, should we bemoan their use of an inalienable right or should we celebrate the fact that they have it?

“America's greatest contribution to the world is its concept of democracy, its concept of freedom, freedom of action, freedom of speech, and freedom of thought.

Freedom of speech is not a concept that supports the idea of strict parameters. Freedom of speech allows each of us sovereignty over our thoughts and how we choose to express them. We must also live by the consequences of our words and actions associated with this freedom.

With the advent of the internet those who maintain points of view which deviate drastically from our own possess the ability to find each other, to band together and create a semblance of unity of voice. We can, at times, believe that these divergent opinions are becoming main stream. We can feel they are gaining a level of acceptance which we find abhorrent. But, that is the beauty of this freedom.

We can speak. We can advance our point of view. But, so can everyone else. There is a symmetry in this right. Freedom can only exist if it is universal. And, freedom drives positive change because we can, as a community, discuss these points of view. Without the ability to share ideas we cannot, as individuals, grow. We cannot grow as a society without hearing all of the voices which are a part of it.

We must also live with the horrors. The young man who stormed the church in Charleston was a victim of his own prejudices which were fed by the words of another. A dark side to our rights to speak. Yet, the call to ban the ability of citizens to display symbols of this hatred is counterproductive; in my opinion. We cannot talk about what we can’t see. We can’t attempt to bridge gaps which are hidden from our view. We cannot find ways to heal open sores with the band aid of restrictions hiding them from us.

We attempt to ban the things we find offensive; yet we cannot understand that banning anything will not make the causes of the offense disappear. It’s a whitewash of a dilapidated fence. It is an attempt to divest ourselves of our responsibility to speak out against the views we find offensive and to attempt to put forth our ideas on the causes and cures. This ability to speak and act is not as simple as two opposing views. When something such as the horror in Charleston is brought to our attention we find that many disagree on the causes and cures. We find more gaping wounds. We find those who lay blame, those who make excuses and those whose compassion is frustrated by an inability to understand how such a thing could happen. But, without the ability to freely speak we would know none of these things. We would be trapped within our own minds without the benefit of input from others in our community and throughout the world.

Those whose voices rise in an attempt to abrogate our basic rights are simply attempting to rise to positions of authority over the rest of us; as if their point of view takes precedent. We should all, no matter our differences, stand against such calls and celebrate our rights by demanding those rights for all.

I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it. Thomas Jefferson

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    • Nathanville profile image

      Arthur Russ 

      16 months ago from England

      Thanks for your feedback Denise.

      I do appreciate views on this subject in America are different to the views held by Europeans; and perhaps for good reason. So I guess what you say may be true for America but not so for Europe.

      In Europe, the 2nd world war is still fresh in our minds e.g. over 2 million British homes were destroyed by Hitler’s bombing raids over England and Britain was on the brink of being bankrupt when the war ended. In this context, in the UK since the 1960s we’ve had two extreme right wing fringe political parties; one being BNP (British National Party) and the other being the National Front, a neo-fascist group prejudice against anyone who is not pure white British.

      Fortunately, their membership is (and has always been) extremely small, and they don’t get many votes in elections. However if members of such political parties were able to speak freely, they would insight hatred; we only have to remember Nazi Germany (who were also an extreme right wing neo fascist political party in the 1930s) and the hatred they whipped up in their speeches before Hitler seized power.

      It’s largely for these reasons that Europeans are sensitive about balancing the rights of free speech with the respect of minority and potentially vulnerable groups, and we have come to recognise that with the freedom of speech comes a responsibility to respect any minority and potentially vulnerable group.

      That doesn’t mean to say that (as a European) if I wish to express a negative view about a minority group that I’m gagged. There are ways and means that critical views can be expressed and directed against a minority group that is acceptable and lawful, and respectful, while at the same time getting a message across e.g. as long as the views expressed are not likely to insight hatred.

      In this respect, if you’re British, and you want to deride an individual in a minority group or deride a minority and potentially vulnerable group in general then sarcasm is a far better tool than ‘hate speech’ e.g. you don’t call a short person names because of their size if that is likely to cause them to be bullied because other people on hearing your comments start picking on them because of their size, you might instead politely call them (tongue in cheek)’ virtually challenged’, in that it is more likely to be seen as harmless humour and not be repeated in a hurtful way; and if the person objects to being called vertically challenged are more likely to be listened to by others and respected e.g. it’s the tone of language used that’s important.

      At the end of the day our differing attitudes on this topic may come down to the vast cultural and social differences between Europeans and Americans, which as I learn more about American society I’m becoming increasingly be aware of.

    • Live to Learn profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise 

      16 months ago from Virginia

      Thanks for the comments Nathanville. I will say that although hate speech is abhorrent in nature it is vital that we speak freely; no matter our views. We can't openly discuss our differences without it and it is that open discussion which allows us to change views. Nor do I think it healthy, or wise, to relegate those whose hatreds might foment violence to private rooms. I believe such speech should be spoken openly for all to hear. It will be judged for what it is more quickly by a populace who will quickly hear opposing views.

    • Nathanville profile image

      Arthur Russ 

      17 months ago from England

      Denise, it's interesting to read your views as an American on this rather sensitive subject. All too often, Americans only seem to view this from their perspective and ridicule Europe for having its own views under its culture.

      I hope this info below helps to highlight how and why Europe takes a different approach on this subject.

      Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (as embodied in Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights Article):-

      1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression…..

      2. The exercise of these freedoms…… carries with it duties and responsibilities….

      It’s the ‘duties and responsibilities’ element of freedom of speech that relates to the ‘hate speech’ aspect in Europe. At the moment there isn’t any universal legislation on this across Europe; although there is a lot of misinformation on the web to suggest otherwise.

      The laws in the UK varies, dependent on whether it’s in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales.

      However, in general in Britain and across Europe hate speech is where:-

      • There’s Hatred toward someone on account of that person's colour, race, disability, nationality, ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation.

      And hate speech becomes hate crime when:-

      • Such speech is for example intended to stir up racial hatred or having regards to the circumstances racial hatred is likely to be stirred up.

      I appreciate that Americans view hate crime as a censorship on freedom of speech; but the dynamics are different in Europe in that we do live in cosmopolitan communities where maintaining good relations with all law abiding citizens regardless to their race, creed, religion, disabilities or sexual orientation is critical for peaceful co-existence. It’s under these circumstances that hate speech is unhelpful as it can cause divisions and lead to violence.

    • PhoenixV profile image

      PhoenixV 

      2 years ago from USA

      I think Tommy Smothers said it best that the only valid form of censorship is the right not to listen. I say that hate speech is a phrase used by cowards that cannot handle a hard truth or cannot stand up and correct a lie

    • cheaptrick profile image

      cheaptrick 

      2 years ago from the bridge of sighs

      Your forum reply was so enjoyable I thought I'd take a closer look;Glad I did.

      We take so much for granted in this world don't we?The other day a friend said she was bored and would like to see something fantastic to alleviate that...so I took her outside and told her to look up.She didn't get it.

      The same thing applies to speech;Is it not fantastic that we can make certain sounds or write symbols in a certain order and it somehow transfers our thoughts into another persons mind.

      Writers ARE artists;Words are their brush,the readers mind is their canvas,the art produced is subjective,and all of it is valid...even the art we disdain.

      Excellent article,excellent comments.Thanks

      Dean

    • emge profile image

      Madan 

      2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Its an excellent hub as free speech is despite all its all faults cannot be dispensed off with. it is the foundation of a democratic system and all other freedoms emanate from this basic concept. But I wonder whether free speech is also a right to incite for violence and crime. Where is the dividing line?

    • word55 profile image

      Al Wordlaw 

      2 years ago from Chicago

      Hi Denise, Good hub here. As far as the good Lord is concerned, "Let the words of my mouth be acceptable in thy sight."... first. Looking forward to reading more. Keep up the good work.

    • Live to Learn profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise 

      2 years ago from Virginia

      Immature exhibitionism is a particular irritant. But, the principles of free speech are so important even that warrants protection. Lucky we have the right to respond and point out what it is or ignore it.

    • profile image

      ahorseback 

      2 years ago

      You know , reluctantly I agree ! You are right I despise however , lets call it immature misuse of free speech , we do unfortunately need all of it though . Lets say when free speech becomes immature exhibitionism , its no longer viable ?

    • FootballNut profile image

      FootballNut 

      2 years ago

      Freedom of speech is an amazing thing in my view for different reasons to yours, mine is not because we are allowed to have it (only to a certain extent though, for example if you say the wrong things you will end up being locked up in prison, or be on the run like Ed Snowden).

      The thing that amazes me about freedom of speech is that we all seem to be grateful to our leaders/countries for ALLOWING us to have it lol. Let's stop there, who the hell are they to permission us to speak in the first place? The gratefulness about freedom of speech should not even exist, this should just be a natural thing we do. As for those who use it in so called offensive ways, this is because society trained by the rich have bracketed words so that reactions are caused when someone says something.

      NOTHING IS OFFENSIVE!! For example,

      Oh f*** I just cut my finger on a piece of paper....

      oi F*** off you, get out of my parking space....lol

      Hi, Denise, you look lovely, do you want to be my f*** buddy... (lmao)

      see same word used but the tone it which one uses it is what people find offensive and it depends who is using them, for example if a stranger said these things to you you would deem it as a offensive, yet your friend could say the exact same things on a drunken night out/in general and it will be took as laughter.

      Which do you find most offensive?

      It is almost as if the greedy people have us looking up to them licking their boots clean as a way of thanking them for allowing us to speak.

    • Greensleeves Hubs profile image

      Greensleeves Hubs 

      2 years ago from Essex, UK

      I agree pretty much with all your thinking Denise, though I think I may possibly be slightly less tolerant than you, in the sense that I believe it is a right for independent web page compilers / publishers / arbiters to exercise their own judgement on opinions expressed, and to veto if they deem it necessary - as long as they make clear the reasons for that veto. I think that is necessary to maintain some order, prevent flame wars, abuse and sidetracking of debates.

      That in itself is not a denial of free speech as the person affected will still have the legal freedom to present their views in other forums or media.

      Legal (official) prevention of free expression of genuinely held opinions is not acceptable to me, except in the circumstances you have described, such as incitement to violence.

      I find Oztinato's fixation with atheist intolerance of religion difficult to accept. The very opposite is true. Religious people (if one can grossly generalise) are rather less tolerant of atheism, and many openly imply that atheists' moral values are weaker than theirs. That seems an intolerant, bigoted attitude to me. Atheists may ridicule fundamentalist religion, but very few seek to ban it or are intolerant or judgemental towards people practising their religion - any religion.

      I like your way of thinking Denise, and hope to see more of your writing on HubPages. Alun

    • Oztinato profile image

      Andrew Petrou 

      2 years ago from Brisbane

      Live

      yes, extreme right wing fundamentalist actually have something in common with what appears to be the average atheist: religious intolerance.

    • Live to Learn profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise 

      2 years ago from Virginia

      I agree wholeheartedly that untruth, or wrapping an ounce of truth around 15 ounces of lies and innuendo doesn't fall under the protection of free speech. Of course free lies are fairly common here in this country.

    • promisem profile image

      Scott S Bateman 

      2 years ago

      "Criticism is not hate speech."

      Agreed. However, untruth is not free speech because it is illegal in the form of libel and slander.

      Therefore, propaganda is not free speech if it is untrue.

    • Live to Learn profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise 

      2 years ago from Virginia

      If we are to agree with your assessment of atheists then I would have to point out that I feel the same way about many ultra Christian posters. That would mean that their emotional charged criticism of gays and women who have had abortions fall into the category of hate speech. Would you advocate we silence them also?

    • Oztinato profile image

      Andrew Petrou 

      2 years ago from Brisbane

      Live

      the basis of IS terrorism is religious intolerance. This is a fact. Hate speech directly emanates from generalized religious and racial intolerance. This behaviour is totally unrelated to simple criticism

      Atheists who practice generalized religious intolerance are laying the foundation for hate speech regardless of what they claim. It is bullying as it lacks any empathy at all.

    • Live to Learn profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise 

      2 years ago from Virginia

      Criticism is not hate speech. That should be amply clear to adults. Atheists can, at times, be less than civil during a religious discourse. It does not constitute hate speech.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Andrew Petrou 

      2 years ago from Brisbane

      Live

      neverthless it is hate speech to use blanket crticism of all religion as it contradicts the First Amendment. Yes certain backwater fundamentalist "Christian" folk do it to others, but why highly educated atheists do it to every religion is a highly unplatable illegal mystery.

    • Live to Learn profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise 

      2 years ago from Virginia

      No one has implied that bullying and the worst type of terrorism are acceptable. I'm afraid too many religious folk scream for others to cease speaking when they find the words at odds with their religion. That is not a fair attempt to define hate speech. The intolerance of religion itself is one reason why freedom of speech is so important. Religious people insist they are bullied when, many times, they appear to be the bullies.

      Racial intolerance is not lawful in this country so there is legal recourse when encountered.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Andrew Petrou 

      2 years ago from Brisbane

      Live

      exactly.

      Hence Bullying and its relatives racial and religious intolerance fall into this disgusting category along with the worst type of terrorism..

    • Live to Learn profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise 

      2 years ago from Virginia

      Attempting to label things 'hate speech' is little more than attempting to silence opinions we don't like, or agree with. By law, the only speech which can be considered hate speech which is illegal is when the speaker is attempting to incite violence, or it is reasonable to assume violence will be incited by their words.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Andrew Petrou 

      2 years ago from Brisbane

      Promise

      exactly.

      Free speech has absolutely nothing to do with hate speech. Propaganda often falls under the hate speech banner.

      Contrary to certain misinformed comments here it is well known that hate speech is against the law. Bullying for example involves hate speech.

    • promisem profile image

      Scott S Bateman 

      2 years ago

      Is propaganda free speech? If propaganda risks leading a country into dictatorship (Nazi Germany, Soviet Union), does it no longer qualify as free speech?

    • EsJam profile image

      Essie 

      3 years ago from Southern California

      Wow, I messed up the beginning of the the comment. It's confusing. It's a wonder you could read it, haha.

      Take care.

      Essie

    • Live to Learn profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise 

      3 years ago from Virginia

      I like the way you think EsJam. I couldn't agree more with your comment.

    • EsJam profile image

      Essie 

      3 years ago from Southern California

      I disagree with one thing that Oztinato says. Hate speech is speech, regardlesss. Kind speech is speech, so hate speech is speech as well. Granted, it is revolting, and comes from the mouths of those who cannot get past themselves. But saying something freely, whether we agree or like it or not - is speech.

      I don't know that it is necessarily illegal, either. Granted, if certain things are said, like "Bomb" - those type of things are illegal - but that is not to me, categorized as "speech". The single word is not an opinion, of any kind.

      There is a parrallel to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Although I am a Christian, if I drive by and see a billboard promoting a Satanic church, my first reaction would be digsust. But would I go to city council and demand it be taken down? As much as I would want to, no, for I would be hypocritical. I can't say freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion - any of the above, and yet, demand the removal of something because it offends me. No, I am not a weak Christian, but the world is a bigger place than myself. I would find other ways to counter, including my right to put up my own sign beside it that says "Welcome to the Church of Christ".

    • Live to Learn profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise 

      3 years ago from Virginia

      I think the point you are missing is that you are likely defining hate speech to fit your sensibilities. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld citizen's rights to voice opinions which many, myself included, deem hateful.

      Just claiming 'hate' is not enough. Terrorists can spew what you appear to be defining as hate speech all day long. It is when they make threats to the safety of others that it becomes illegal.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Andrew Petrou 

      3 years ago from Brisbane

      My point is easy to understand: hate speech is NOT free speech. Hate speech is hate speech and free speech is free speech; they are two different phenomena.

      Just being "speech" is not enough; for example, terrorists spew out "hate speech" which is illegal. Therefore the definition of free speech is speech that does not contradict the much higher freedoms of racial equality and freedom of religion.

    • Live to Learn profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise 

      3 years ago from Virginia

      I consider freedom of speech to be a benchmark which allows freedom of religion and ensures that we maintain the belief that all are created equal. I'm confused by the rest of your comment. If a hypocrite sees hate speech as free speech and we outlaw free speech because of it...what have we gained? I find many comments people make to be hateful when viewed from an angle different from the one they are coming from. Should their views be outlawed, because I consider it to be hateful? Heck, you wouldn't be able to emotionalize the abortion debate. I find pro lifers comments to be exceptionally hateful.

      Either way, hate speech is speech so should be given equal protection under the law. We can certainly impose penalties and hold people liable for actions resulting from their speech. Is that an acceptable compromise?

    • Oztinato profile image

      Andrew Petrou 

      3 years ago from Brisbane

      Let's not forget the other even more important rights such as freedom of religion and that all are created equal. If certain hypocrites try to see hate speech as alleged free speech then it needs to be outlawed as it contradicts other more important basic human rights

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