When a person or a corporation has the right of the freedom of speech, then they are able to express any opinion without restraint or censorship. This approach to society is a democratic institution which dates back to the ancient Greek culture.
In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech for all people. Through this fundamental right, Americans have the freedom to protest, practice the religion they want, and express opinions without worrying about the government imprisoning them for criticism. It was adopted on December 15, 1971, as part of the Bill of Rights.
As with all modern democracies, even the United States places limits on this freedom. There are specific limits placed on this principle that dictate what people can or cannot say legally. The First Amendment does not specifically say what is or is not protected, but the Supreme Court has ruled that there are some forms which are not allowed.
Here are the freedom of speech pros and cons to consider with this element as part of a democratic society.
List of the Pros of Freedom of Speech
1. Freedom of speech protects each of us from the influence of special interests.
When people have power, then they do whatever they can to retain it for as long as possible. That may include a change in the government’s constitution, a shift in a company’s Board of Directors, or the suppression of a minority group that threatens the way of life for the people involved. Having the freedom of speech reduces this power because it allows individuals to express criticism of those who are in power. There is no fear of losing personal freedom with this right because your opinion contributes to the overall conversation.
2. Freedom of speech eliminates compelled actions.
When you have the freedom of speech, then the government cannot compel your actions in such a way that you are required to speak a specific message. You stay in control of what you say and how those words are expressed to the rest of society. Even if the government attempts to alter your words to their advantage, you will always have the opportunity to address the situation and correct the “mistakes” that others create in your work.
3. Freedom of speech promotes the free exchange of ideas.
When a society operates in an area where free speech is given to all, then there is a more significant exchange of ideas that occur. It becomes almost impossible for those who are in power to suppress truths that they may not want to let out in the open. This process allows for progress to occur because people can learn from the experiences and perspectives of one another without worrying about the dogma of a “Big Brother” element in society, either corporate or government-based.
4. Freedom of speech can expose immoral or unlawful activities.
When Edward Snowden decided to leak numerous state secrets to the press, he created an interesting question about the freedom of speech that we are still attempting to resolve in our society. Was such an action inflicting damage against the legitimate actions of the government? Or was the information he offered a way to bring light to actions that the government shouldn’t have been performing in the first place? It is tricky to find the line which exists when you must protect information or protect others. Having this right in society allows us to at least have that conversation.
5. Freedom of speech prevents the requirement to behave specific ways.
Some people today might say that any speech which someone finds offensive should be banned. Imagine then that someone became offended by the mention of same-gender marriage – or the opposite, that they were offended by the mention of opposite-gender marriage. Freedom of speech allows people to make up their minds about what to share with others. Some people might be brazen with their approach, but that also means they might not have as many friends because of their attitude.
6. Freedom of speech advances knowledge for a society.
When you have a chance to ask questions or share perspectives, then it creates more learning opportunities in society. This right makes it easier for all individuals to make a new discovery, suggest ideas, or exchange information freely without worrying about potential political consequences. Even if some of the ideas do not work after you get to try them, the process of testing contributes to the advancement of society as well. Thomas Edison famously made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at the invention of the light bulb – each idea was a new step toward success.
7. Freedom of speech allows for peaceful changes in society.
Some people use their freedom of speech as a way to incite hatred or violence. Others use it as a way to create the potential for peaceful change. Providing facts to individuals while sharing your opinion can persuade them to consider your perspective, even if they do not agree with it at the time. When this is your top priority with this right, then you are less likely as an individual to use violence as a way to create change. Although this process requires patience from all of us to be successful, it will usually get us to where we want to be.
8. Freedom of speech gives us an opportunity to challenge hate.
Peter Tatchell is a human-rights activist who suggests that the best way to move forward as a society is to challenge the people who have differing views. He told Index in 2016 this: “Free speech does not mean giving bigots a free pass. It includes the right and moral imperative to challenge, oppose, and protest bigoted views. Bad ideas are most effectively defeated by good ideas, backed by ethics and reason, rather than bans and censorship.
9. Freedom of speech creates resiliency.
Although exposing people to hate speech is hurtful and creates fear in some individuals, it also creates a resiliency in the debate. Instead of making your voice louder when confronting these ideas, you are improving your argument. When this action occurs, the action of observation and counter-observation make it possible to create an outcome where progress toward the greater good occurs. When we lack tolerance for differing, uncomfortable opinions, then it weakens the rights that so many people take for granted when there is something that they want to say.
List of the Cons of Freedom of Speech
1. Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to have “all” speech.
The concept behind the freedom of speech is that you should be able to express anything in a way that does not create legal consequences for you. Even if your opinion is unsavory, rude, or unpopular, this right gives you the option to express it. In the United States, there are four forms of speech which are not protected under the First Amendment.
• You cannot make an authentic threat against another individual.
• It is illegal to defame others, including libel and slander.
• You cannot plagiarize any copyrighted material.
• It is illegal to share some obscene material, such as child pornography.
If you say something in the United States which insights illegal actions or solicit others to commit a crime, then your speech is not protected by the First Amendment either.
2. Freedom of speech can spread false information.
Thanks to the rise of the Internet, the freedom of speech makes it easier for individuals to spread false information and outright lies, but then still pretend that this data is true. Research does not prove that vaccinations increase the risk of autism in children, but you will find “information” online that says this is true. Even though it is protected speech when this right is present, it could also lead to people getting or transmitting a preventable disease. In 2019, over 60 people in Washington and Oregon contracted the measles, with almost all of the cases being unvaccinated children.
3. Freedom of speech can incite violence against other people.
People must be held responsible for the personal choices that they make. When someone commits an act of violence against another because they were incited by hate speech to do so, then they made the choice to break the law. The person who created the outcome through the encouragement of their language holds some responsibility here as well. If online radicalization causes people to join ISIS, then shouldn’t political radicalization that causes individuals to attack journalists be treated in the same way?
4. Freedom of speech creates a paradox.
When we look at the modern idea that creates the foundation for freedom of speech, it really isn’t free. The government is still dictating some of the things that we can or cannot say. This freedom, and this writer, cannot exist if people are not allowed to make assertions that are distasteful to the majority, even if the statements are hurtful to other people.
5. Freedom of speech can create a mob mentality.
In 2012, Oatmeal and FunnyJunk had a dust-up over the use of images that author Matthew Inman did not authorize for distribution. Charles Carreon made a public splash as the attorney for FunnyJunk, which created a back-and-forth which eventually led the Internet to turn against him. In return for those actions, Carreon labeled everyone he thought of as an “instigator” as a “rapeutationist.” When one person offers an opinion that others find to be believable, it creates a mob mentality on both sides of the equation. When this happens, it can destroy a person’s livelihood quickly.
6. Freedom of speech can cause people to endure verbal abuse.
Voltaire’s biographer summed up the views of the philosopher like this: “I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” When freedom of speech is treated this way, then it creates a situation where people must endure sexist or racist verbal abuse. Is it really beneficial for society to allow individuals to use derogatory terms for the purpose of causing discomfort?
We already know that there can be poor health outcomes associated with the fear of violence and crime. Dr. Erin Grinshteyn of UCSF conduced an online survey platform that asked students to rate their fear of experiencing 11 different crimes that included physical assault, hate speech, vandalism, and microaggressions among others. Her findings showed that students in racial minority groups feared violence more than Caucasians. Ongoing fear is a risk factor for mental health declines as well.
7. Freedom of speech will eventually polarize society.
When people are allowed to express their opinions freely, then it creates three primary outcomes. Some people will agree with the statement, others will disagree, and a middle group won’t care one way or the other. People tend to hang out in circles where others think and feel in similar ways, which means they will gather around like-minded individuals to spend most of their time.
Pew Research found as early as 2014 that 92% of Republicans are to the political right of the median Democrat, while 94% of Democrats were to the left of the median Republican. 36% of GOP supporters even felt that members of the opposite party were a threat to the wellbeing of the country. When there are ideological silos created from free speech, it eventually polarizes society into groups that struggle to get along with each other.
28% of people say that it is important to them to live in a place where most others share their political views. For people who label themselves as “consistently conservative,” that figure rises to 50%, and 63% of that same group says that most of their close friends share their political views.
8. Freedom of speech reduces the desire to compromise.
Pew Research also discovered that when people are consistently liberal or conservative with their freedom of speech, their idea of what compromise entails begins to shift. Instead of believing that both sides must have a give-and-take to create an outcome, the definition becomes one in which their side gets what they want while the other side gets as little as possible. This perspective makes it a challenge for society to function because those on each extreme are consistently battling the other extreme because each views themselves as being the superior contributor to society.
A Final Thought on the Pros and Cons of Freedom of Speech
The pros and cons of freedom of speech suggest that there should be some limits in place for the general good of society. Allowing people to say or do whatever they want at any time increases the risk for harm. Do we really want to live in a world where the creation and distribution of child pornography is a protected right?
Once we start deciding “good” and “bad” speech, it opens the door for abuses to occur. That is why the Supreme Court in the United States has worked hard for over 200 years to create rigid definitions of what is helpful and what is harmful. The goal is to allow people to express contrary opinions without the threat of legal reprisal. This structure promotes an exchange of ideas, which then encourages the learning processes for everyone.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Masters Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.