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Freedom of Speech: Our Right to Be Wrong

Updated on December 8, 2017
William F. Torpey profile image

Graduated NYU in 1964. Worked in NYC for 2 years in public relations then as reporter and editor before retiring from The Hour newspaper.

It isn't mentioned in the Bill of Rights -- or anywhere in the U.S. Constitution -- but, in my judgment, it's one of our most important inalienable rights. It has a kinship to freedom of speech, but I call it by another name: The Right To Be Wrong.

Like free speech, the right to be wrong has its restrictions. As noted by the Supreme Court of the United States, we do not have a right to shout "fire" in a crowded theater. In other words, our right to free speech ends where other, conflicting rights begin.

Democracy could not exist without free speech. For a free people to govern themselves everyone must be free to express his views. It is only by a free exchange of views that seemingly insoluble problems can be overcome.

Free Speech Limits

In the real world, however, democracy exists only in a narrow political view -- even in America. If you're in the military services, you have very little free speech. If you dispute this, try telling your platoon leader what you think of his leadership abilities.

In the business world, you have constitutionally protected rights, but the workplace is hardly a democracy. If you question this, try telling your employer how his business could be run better.

If you're in school, try advising your teacher a better way to teach his class; if your in a hospital, try telling the nurse not to bother you until after breakfast; if you're on the golf course, try teeing off ahead of the foursome ahead of you.

Minority of One

Aside from such restrictions, free speech is designed to allow you to express opinions without fear. If we were all "yes men," the Bill of Rights would hardly be necessary, but, alas, some of us have opinions that are often anathema to the majority. Despite the fact that such opinions may be held by a minority -- often a minority of one -- they may be right -- or wrong. However, what is right, or wrong, is a subjective judgment and not always a majority opinion.

Neo-Nazi organizations and the Ku Klux Klan have memberships who hold opinions abominable to most of us, but they, too, have the right to be wrong -- as well as the right to be shallow minded, arrogant and stupid. But they frequently go well beyond simply being wrong; they deny, or try to deny, others their inherent human rights. It's important that any measure taken against them not infringe significantly on the rights of everyone else.

When they make public statements, they must take responsibility for them.

No Fear of Retribution

The rest of us -- from nonofficialdom -- shouldn't be muzzled, either. And, right or wrong, we can express our opinions freely without fear or official retribution. Naturally, we, too, must take responsibility for what we say.

Newspapers publish the opinions of their readers daily. Responsible editors wouldn't think of not printing a letter because they disagree with the writer. In fact, the whole idea of printing letters is to allow readers to express their unfettered views.

I wrote this column as a "My View" for The Hour newspaper of Norwalk, Conn., on July 13, 1998. I now write my views on a wide variety of topics on HubPages.

What Are Human Rights? We Are All Born Equal and Free


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    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 7 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Without the right to be wrong, Petra Vlah, we'd all be speechless. It certainly is true that there is never any excuse for rudeness, and no one should ever be forced to accept or conform to the views of others.

    • Petra Vlah profile image

      Petra Vlah 7 years ago from Los Angeles

      The feedom of speech stops where the "plitically correct" nonsens begins. We can be wrong, but not rude and by no means should we be forced to accept and conform to norms that are hypocritical.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      People can and do lie, Dolores, but I wouldn't call it a "right." I, too, have a problem with lies -- as well as distortions and half-truths designed to deceive.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Of course, I wholly endorse the right to be wrong, the right to be obnoxious, and the right to be stupid. This is American, after all. I do have a problem with the right to lie, however.

    • marisuewrites profile image

      marisuewrites 10 years ago from USA

      You are so right Sally, we are often persecuted for speaking...I guess in a way that hurts and protects both...we learn to curb our tongue, and we also learn to speak out no matter the price if it's worth fighting for....

      the line that divides is sometimes thin...but the freedom of speech stands firm.

      I applaud this hub!! and this freedom --

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Glad you enjoy my scribbles, Sally's Trove. It's true that we often seem to concern ourselves more with the excesses of government than with those in our social circles, but in one way or another we must all answer for the stands we take on controversial issues. It takes a certain amount of courage to go against conventional wisdom.

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 10 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      William, I so enjoy your timeless hubs. You wrote this article in '98, but the thoughts behind it ring true today, and will for a long time to come.

      Although we are free from legal prosecution for expressing our thoughts (so long as our expression is not inciteful, defamatory, libelous, or slanderous), sometimes we suffer the wrath of friends, co-workers, and family when we do. Sometimes we are better protected by our legal codes than our social codes.

      Best regards, S.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thank you, Constant Walker. That's nice of you to say.

      I'm also one who uses the right to be wrong frequently, marisuewrites. We are indeed lucky, but I think the way things have been going lately we may have to fight even harder to keep from losing it. Thanks for your kind words.

    • marisuewrites profile image

      marisuewrites 10 years ago from USA

      I use the right to be wrong frequently. Great reminders of the precious gift of freedom of speech. We are lucky in this country to speak without fear of being arrested....may we always keep it!! Fight for it, about it, and over it.

      Inspiring hub...thank you.

    • Constant Walker profile image

      Constant Walker 10 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

      Like Gamegirl said, beautiful and eloguent. Can't say it better than that.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Defining the difference between good and evil, ColdWarBaby, might be a rather difficult task, but if anyone who doesn't know the difference is in deep trouble.

      It's amazing, wannabwestern, how many "otherwise intelligent people" come up with some outrageous ideas. Thanks for your kind remarks.

    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 10 years ago from Iowa

      Great writing, as usual! Finding a balance between freedom of self-expression and protecting other's rights at the same time is a key point in protecting these rights. I was incensed when an otherwise well-educated person sent me a petition to ban a certain movie because it "attacked God." I wrote her back and told her to read Fahrenheit 451!

    • profile image

      ColdWarBaby 10 years ago

      My analysis is a bit more simplistic. I'd venture to say that one may as well ask what's the difference between "Good" and "Evil".

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thank you, blangrehr. I'm glad you liked it.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Interesting history, ColdWarBaby. Great words. I would say "human rights" is something that every living soul is born with; they are rights that cannot be given or taken away (in a theoretical sense.) Individual rights, it seems to me, are those rights given to citizens or members of a group by its government or leaders, and thus given, also can be taken away. That's just my opinion off the top of my head. Thanks for your interesting comments.

    • blangrehr profile image

      Hamilton Forrester 10 years ago from Myrtle Beach, SC


    • profile image

      ColdWarBaby 10 years ago

      Thank you for an excellent discourse on some very basic truths.

      "I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Attributed to Voltaire but was actually written by S.G. Tallentyre (Evelyn Beatrice Hall) who was a biographer of Voltaire and wrote "The Friends of Voltaire" (1907). She used the phrase to express the essence of Voltaire's fight against censorship and his "Essay on Tolerance".

      So now I wonder. What is the difference between "Human Rights" and the libertarian variant, "Individual Rights"?

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      And thank you, solarshingles, for your very nice comment.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      It's always very interesting, Chef Jeff, to get new details about Bing's life and death. Believe it or not, he's been in the news quite a bit lately. His family recently took a renewed interest in promoting his legacy and has created a new website, The Bing Crosby Internet Museum, which has everything you ever wanted to know about Bing, relates that he died on Oct. 14, 1977 on La Moraleja Golf Course near Madrid. He had just completed a successful round of golf when he collapsed as the result of a massive heart attack. He had been playing with Spanish golfers Manuel Pinero, Valentine Barrios, and club president Cesar de Zulueta. Bing’s last words were reportedly, "That was a great game of golf fellas. Let’s go have a Coca-Cola."

    • solarshingles profile image

      solarshingles 10 years ago from london

      Beautiful hub about the very basics of FREEDOM. I also love the video. Thank you!

    • Chef Jeff profile image

      Chef Jeff 10 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

      By the way, I see you have a Bing Crosby picture.  When I was stationed in Spain I was a medic at Torrejon Air. Base near Madrid, and we were called out to help a "famous American" who was ill on a golf course.  When we got there the local Spanish ambulance had already arrived, but their patient was Bing Crosby.

      He didn't make it, however, and we were not allowed to do anything but watch.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Without the right to be wrong, Bob, we'd all be in trouble. Thanks for commenting.

      Chef Jeff, You are too, too kind. Thank you.

    • Chef Jeff profile image

      Chef Jeff 10 years ago from Universe, Milky Way, Outer Arm, Sol, Earth, Western Hemisphere, North America, Illinois, Chicago.

      Fantastic hub! I am envious, humbled and proud to have been able to read it freely, without censorship. I agree 110%!!!

    • profile image

      Bob 10 years ago

      Bill....I'm afraid I can't argue too much with you on this one.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 10 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Thank you so much, gamergirl -- and "hugs" to you, too.

    • gamergirl profile image

      Kiz 10 years ago from Antioch, TN

      William! That video is brilliant, and matches the eloquence of your hub perfectly.



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