Freedom of Speech

Freedom of speech has been a rallying call to both liberals and conservatives in modern history. During the 60s and 70s, freedom of speech was tied into the anti-war and civil rights movements, when, for example, a college student was arrested for setting up a table of civil-rights literature, in defiance of anti-solicitation rules. However, over the past couple of decades, the tables have turned. Now conservatives, particularly libertarian conservatives, decry the left’s attack on free speech. Liberals, they say, have gone too far in promoting political correctness around race, gender, sexual orientation and other identity issues. In particular, conservatives argue that the idea of a “safe space” has been used as a tool for censorship, from the student journalist who was bullied during the 2015 University of Missouri protests to the resignation of Mozilla C.E.O Brandon Eich because he donated to an effort to ban same-sex marriage in California.

Many of these occurrences can be traced to different ideas about the value and purpose of Freedom of Speech. Many often cite the “marketplace of ideas” concept formulated by John Stuart Mill to justify free speech. Assuming that all humans are fallible, this concept states that we cannot censor the ideas of others, no matter how much we may disagree, because it is only through a free exchange of ideas that we can find truth and progress as a society. Under this justification, “safe spaces” can actually hinder societal progress because they prevent societal discourse from moving forward. Prejudice doesn’t disappear; it simply goes underground and unspoken.

Some liberals, on the other hand, might reply that Freedom of Speech is meant to protect from oppression, not to solidify it. From this vantage point, speech from oppressors, such as racist or sexist language, can and should be limited when it solidifies unjust power structures and those who are less powerful don’t have the same opportunity for their voice to be heard. Under this formulation, Freedom of Speech is not an absolute right but something that must be weighed against the potential harm it causes, even if that harm is not immediately tangible.  The term “micro-aggressions” current on campuses and elsewhere has heightened sensitivity (both ways) about verbal expression that is experienced as harming, regardless of intent.

Some have begun talking about brave spaces as places where real, authentic exchange between sharp disagreements can take place in an atmosphere of both trust and respect - as well as a bit of courage.  


Conversation Catalysts: 

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green, 1869



Charlie Wisoff, Michael Strong

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