Freedom of Speech: Is Offensive Speech Good For Society? – Learn Liberty


Prof. Tom Bell: Why should we care about free
speech? On college campuses, students clamor for restrictions on speech that they consider
offensive, hateful or disturbing. Internationally, countries consider further limiting speech
in the wake of violence like that committed by those who object portrayals of the prophet
Muhammad. In the American media, many commentators question whether such offensive and provocative
speech should even be allowed, and why should it? What good does it do to let people offend
others’ deeply held religious beliefs? What good does it do to allow people to say racist
or bigoted things? What about homophobic slurs or remarks demeaning towards women or any
other nasty hateful comments that you can imagine? Wouldn’t our country be a better
place if we shut down that kind of speech? No. Freedom of expression matters precisely
because it allows us to voice and hear unpopular and controversial views. You don’t have to
like offensive speech. In fact, you should feel free to vigorously denounce and criticize
speech that you see is wrong, but when people resort to force to prevent or restrict expressions
that they disagree with, they undermine the very principles of freedom and tolerance that
they claim to defend. When we allow the open expression of hateful opinions, we create
opportunities to publicly refute them. The US Supreme Court has upheld the right of Neo-Nazis
to march their Jewish neighborhoods while expressing acutely offensive and distressing
views, but when such ugly demonstrations have taken place, much larger counter demonstrations
have arisen in opposition. The result, greater awareness about the importance of taking a
stand against hate. Allowing offensive speech also matters because
it promotes the progress of human understanding. Some expressions, once wildly denounced as
offensive or even dangerous, have won vindication and become received truth. Whether it was
scientists like Galileo challenging [Linda’s Dogma 01:50] about astronomy, abolitionists
calling for the end of slavery, civil rights leaders demanding an end to Jim Crow laws,
or gay magazine publishers whose work was labelled obscenity, speech that authorities
once tried to censor has instead contributed immeasurably to our culture. When authority
sees the power to silence offensive views, they also have necessity sees the power to
silence dissenting and minority views. In effect, censors pursue a policy of ignorance
by design, that’s why smart societies respect freedom of expression, even when, especially
when it causes discomfort and offense.

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