Freedom of Speech Controversy

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The debate between our country trying to protect our freedom of speech and when it goes too far and crosses the line into hate speech, is not a new debate. However, it seems more recently that the debate has been more heated as we have seen a more divisive and polarized nation. It has even gone as far as some states wanting to enact legislation to criminalize speech that is considered hateful, which is a move comparable to what other countries have implemented. For example, just a few years ago, the United Kingdom made it a criminal offense to incite racial or religious hatred. Similar legislation has developed in other democracies such as Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Sweden, and New Zealand. In our country it has long been known that we have freedom of speech, for it is stated in the very First Amendment in our Constitution. We see it as one of the most important and democratic forms of expressions we possess. Although, albeit an important value, we must know that it is not the only one. In our country, we have a duty to uphold other commitments such as the social equality, dignity, and security of historically marginalized citizens. So that begs the question, should we really see our right to free speech in such high regard that it cannot be regulated, even when it hurts the right of our fellow citizens to live peacefully?

When it comes to the moral right of freedom of speech, in which hate speech is not protected, there are four main arguments that arise to defend that right. The first is titled, ‘The Argument from Listener Autonomy’. This idea stems from the notion that we as individuals have the right to hear speech that we can consider hateful. And some even consider it an insult for the government to step in and declare that we cannot be trusted to hear opinions that might persuade some to dangerous and offensive beliefs. However, on that very point, it ignores the idea that such hateful rhetoric could not only persuade beliefs, but that hatefulness could be acted out in the sense of bullying and harassment. Then the counter argument can shift to, where is the protection for the listener who is subjected to such abuse.

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The second defense to free speech is titled, ‘The Argument from Speaker Autonomy’. It seems self-explanatory in the sense that a person should have the right to speak their mind, but this idea encompasses more than that. It goes as far to suggest that when someone takes on the role of a speaker, it is an expression of one’s own life and of their moral power. To limit that right, even when the rhetoric can take on a distasteful tone, would be to limit how that person can present their true self of how they view the world. And while I must admit this argument seems like a solid one, it can be considered that even though there is value in free, unrestricted expression, it does not outweigh the harms that can come from it.

The third defense is titled, ‘The Argument from Democracy’. This is probably the most influential defense when it comes to free speech. It plays into our status as citizens living in a democracy. That right to free speech is enshrined in our constitution and is protected in our very first amendment. If we are to limit that right, even for hate speech, are we then allowing a limitation on our democracy? I would argue that is not the case. Our constitution not only gives us the right to speak our mind, but offers many other rights that constitute our democracy. Therefore, putting limitations on one small portion, will not significantly reduce our value of a democratic government as a whole. We as a people still have a right to have these hateful thoughts, but a ban on hate speech would simply prevent people from harming others by expressing such thoughts out loud.

The fourth and final defense of free speech is, ‘The Thinker-Based Argument’. What is unique about the most recent argument brought forth, is that it does not focus on the interest of a listener or speaker, but relies on the interest that we have as thinkers. The idea is that speech is seen as the only precise way that we can convey our thoughts to others. And if the government tries to limit the ways we communicate, we will not be able to gauge the opinions and beliefs of others. It could very well stifle our understanding of the world, our relationships we pursue, and the ability to cooperate on moral issues. However, this defense of free speech seems to imply that any ban on hate speech means that you are stopping the right of people to think, but that simply is not true. A person will still have the ability to think whatever they please, but it would just limit the hateful ones which might be communicated to others.

Now to transition from the idea that speech should be free from almost all regulation, to the idea that speech can be harmful, seen as hateful, and in some instances, should be banned and criminalized. One way this can be argued, is not by talking about the rights we possess, but the moral duties we need to adhere to as citizens. When it comes to duties, there are five worth mentioning that can help understand why many can see a need to ban hate speech.

The first two duties are fairly quick and simple to understand. They are the ‘Duty Not to Threaten’, and, ‘Duty Not to Harass’. It is not a controversial idea to suppose that free speech should not protect expressions that deem to threaten and harass people. It is a principle that is a part of our laws. and has actually been upheld by the US Supreme Court. Therefore, action that is already deemed to be illegal, can be seen as a link to a ban of hate speech.

The third duty in regards to hate speech is, ‘The Duty Not to Offend’. With this being an argument of us having the duty to not say speech that will hurt the moral of our fellow citizens, the idea sounds captivating, however it is one of the most controversial arguments. The biggest critique is that it opens up the big question of, who decides what is and is not offensive. What one person can find offensive, another person can find amusing or a non-issue. It can open up a huge can of worms, so to speak, which is why I would personally not like to use this argument in favor of a ban on hate speech.

The fourth duty is, ‘The Duty Not to Defame’. When someone defames another person by use of speech that is hateful, the intention behind it is to degrade and hurt the person, or group of persons, the defamatory language is aimed towards. And like the first two duties mentioned earlier, defamation is already something that is illegal in our country. So, it is not a huge stretch to say that defamatory language is a form a hate speech that should be banned.

The fifth and final duty to justify banning hate speech is, ‘The Duty Not to Incite Violence’. This unique argument is a bit more expansive than just banning hate speech, because it adds the banning of speech even when it is not directed towards hated groups. This idea appears more restrictive, however it is a very convincing argument in the sense that this is not about citizens getting offended towards negative speech, but trying to stop people from inciting others to enact in violence towards those hated groups. Recent history can also support this claim in that people who are extremist in views and carry out mass shootings or other crimes, have been radicalized by hateful rhetoric that was seen in online groups or organizations.

In finalizing this analysis, no matter how much evidence is given on either side of the debate, this topic has been recently regarded as one of the most controversial. For myself, I tend to lean on the side that tries to protect the citizens from being verbally attacked with rhetoric that is meant to harm and demean the person. And anybody else who has similar sentiments, I hope, would agree that this is not done as a mean to stifle democracy or a speaker’s right to express their concerns. In addition to that, I would also hope that people want unrestricted speech, would understand why some people do not agree with that idea. Both sides, in my opinion, raise valid concerns of what limiting free speech, or allowing hate speech, can do if implemented in this country. And throughout my time going through and analyzing the selected reading, my personal opinion was challenged quite a lot. However, in the end, I feel that allowing unrestricted free speech can do more harm than if left alone. With possibilities of harassment, bullying, and the potential to incite others to act out with heinous and fatal crimes, there is a need to try and regulate what can and cannot be said. Any time our rights laid out in our Constitution are challenged, it can bring an alarming feeling, but in order to progress our country, there is a need to periodically gauge where we are as society, enact change, and strive to be better.

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Freedom of Speech Controversy. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 13, 2024, from
“Freedom of Speech Controversy.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
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