Freedom of Speech refers to the right of any citizen to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions without fear of government restraint or censorship (Legal Information Institute, 2020).
The notion of free speech extends beyond verbal communication. It can also defend our rights to use offensive sign language and body language, engage in symbolic and artistic expressions (e.g., flag burning), and even wear clothing that others may find offensive or revealing. Take, for example, the case of Cohen v. California, where the Supreme Court protected an individual’s right to wear a jacket with an expletive as a form of political protest.
Another practical example can be seen in newspapers or media outlets, who are often protected from government persecution by free speech laws. In liberal democracies like the USA and France, the free press are permitted to criticize the government openly.
Free speech helps defend our robust democracies, and makes our political systems more free, fair, and open than nations like Vietnam, China, Hungary, Turkey, and Cambodia whose governments largely control the media and therefore have a stronger monopoly over state power (Lidsky & Cotter, 2016).
Freedom of Speech Examples
- Peaceful protest signs: Peaceful protest signs are protected under free speech laws in most liberal democracies. They represent the direct expression of an individual’s or group’s thoughts and concerns on a political matter (Chenoweth & Stephan, 2011). These signs serve as a non-violent way to demand action, raise awareness, or critique governmental or societal issues. Regardless of the message’s popularity, the freedom to publicly display such signs is protected under freedom of speech, as long, however, as they do not incite violence or unlawful actions.
- Expressing religious beliefs: Freedom of speech in most liberal-democratic nations covers the public expression of religious beliefs (Roth, 2015). This includes wearing religious symbols, discussing religious topics, or participating in religious rituals in public. Importantly, this freedom is granted equally to all religions and even no-religion atheists and agnostics, who have the freedom to promote their non-beliefs. Such a law allows for a diverse array of religious expressions in public forums such as online and in universities.
- Wearing symbolic clothing: The Supreme Court of the USA has upheld the right of individuals to wear expressive clothing as a form of symbolic speech (Cohen v. California, 1971). This can include everything from protest t-shirts to flag pins and allows individuals to wear their opinions literally on their sleeves.
- Artistic expressions of dissent: Artistic expressions, including painting, music, and theater, are vehicles to express dissenting ideas or critique societal norms (Reitman, 2014). These expressions allow for creative commentary on the prevailing cultural, political, or social climates, contributing to the diversity of discourse within society. However, this would not be protected if the art were painted onto other people’s or public property, such as in the case of graffiti art.
- Criticizing government actions: In most liberal democratic nations, freedom of speech also includes the right to voice dissent publicly and criticize government policies or actions (Stroud, 2011). This encourages transparency and accountability, empowering citizens to serve as a check on governmental power.
- Satirical commentary on society: Protected under freedom of speech in many nations, satirical commentary allows for a critique of individuals, groups, and societal norms through humor and irony (Stankiewicz, 2017). Satire plays a vital role in maintaining a healthy society by promoting dialogue about difficult issues in a manner that engages audiences and provokes thought. For example, Charlie Hebdo’s incendiary satirical pictures of Islamic figures was offensive, but allowed, under France’s robust free speech laws.
- Advocating for social change: One of the most potent uses of free speech is the ability to advocate for social change (Meyerson, 2010). This can occur in many ways, such as public speeches, organized protests, or social media campaigns, allowing individuals and groups to bring attention to societal issues and push for change.
- Publicly debating controversial topics: Freedom of speech upholds the right to participate in public debate on controversial topics (Fish, 2016). Such debates often expose varying viewpoints and challenge assumptions, (even if you’re ill-informed!).
- Sharing scientific theories: Academic freedom, a facet of freedom of speech, allows researchers to share scientific theories or findings even if they are controversial (Karran & Mallinson, 2017), without facing fear of being fired. This is a central concept in the tenure system in the USA. This openness promotes progress and innovation by enabling knowledge exchange and peer scrutiny.
- Blogging personal political views: Blogging platforms provide a space for individuals to express their political opinions freely and discuss matters of public concern (Sunstein, 2017). This democratizes access to political discourse and helps cultivate a more informed public, but may also unfortunately spread misinformation – which is a key downside of free speech.
- Writing a critical book review: Freedom of speech permits individuals to write and publish critical reviews of books (or other forms of media), helping to facilitate discourse and contribute to the literary or artistic community (D’Haen, 2012). Such reviews, positive or negative, aid in the critical reception and evaluation of the work, influencing its public reception, but, generally, if not slanderous, cannot be censored.
- Political campaign speeches: When politicians deliver speeches during their campaign, they practice their freedom of speech (Kenski & Stroud, 2016). Their speeches allow voters to understand their stances on various issues, crucial for informed voting. They’re often critical of the government, but yet are allowed, in order to sustain a robust democratic society.
- Publishing an investigative article: Investigative journalism, protected by freedom of speech, involves in-depth reporting to uncover hidden issues in society or government (Tumber & Waisbord, 2019). It serves as a watchdog, promoting transparency, and accountability. This allows papers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to release cutting-edge investigative journalistic pieces.
- Whistleblowing on corporate wrongdoing: Freedom of speech protects whistleblowers who expose unethical practices within corporations, serving as a fundamental check on corruption and wrongdoing (Kohn, 2010). This form of expression is critical for maintaining trust and integrity within industries.
- The right to offend: Freedom of speech includes the right to offend, meaning individuals are allowed to voice opinions or ideas, however, potentially offensive they may be to some (Strossen, 2018). This freedom allows for a wide range of expressions, fostering diverse and dynamic dialogue within society.
- The right to silence: Often conceptualized as “the right to remain silent,” this right protects individuals from self-incrimination and stands as an integral aspect of free speech (Franks, 2014). This guarantees individuals’ liberty to choose when and how they express themselves. In the USA, this is protected under the 5th amendment.
- Social media activism: Activism through social media platforms falls under the umbrella of freedom of speech (Loader & Mercea, 2011). This allows individuals to raise awareness, mobilize supporters, and campaign for change at unprecedented speeds and scales.
- Public speaking at a rally: Individuals addressing a crowd at a public rally exercise their freedom of speech by expressing their beliefs and advocating for causes they support (Tufekci, 2017). Public speeches can rally support, influence opinions, and draw attention to essential issues.
See Also: 40 Types of Freedom
Free Speech and the US Constitution (First Amendment)
While encased in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, freedom of speech was originally designed to maintain civil liberties an open, democratic society whereby all individuals could express their comments and opinions freely (Stroud, 2011).
The framers believed that unchecked and unrestricted discussion would lead to the truth, and bad ideas would be debunked by the good ideas. This idea is often described in the metaphor ‘sunshine is the best disinfectant’.
The USA has one of the most libertarian readings of free speech, and while other liberal democracies protect speech, none are quite as robust in their protections than the USA.
Interestingly, freedom of speech also covers the right to be silent. For instance, the Fifth Amendment of the United States constitution protects an individual’s right not to make self-incriminating statements under interrogation, often conceptualized as “the right to remain silent” (Franks, 2014).
Famous Freedom of Speech Cases in the United States
Tinker v. Des Moines (1969): Student Vietnam War Protests
This landmark case marked a significant decision protecting students’ rights to free speech (Abernathy, 2007). John Tinker and his fellow anti-war agitators were suspended from their Des Moines school for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Upon appeal, the Supreme Court of the United States argued that their actions we free speech. Being non-disruptive of minimally disruptive, are protected. The court stated, “students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” establishing a precedent for future freedom of speech cases in education settings, such as the freedom to wear political slogans on your clothing at public schools.
New York Times Co. v. United States (1971): Defending Press Freedom
In this case, better known as the “Pentagon Papers Case,” the government tried to prevent the New York Times from publishing classified documents containing information that the US government was trying to hide because it demonstrated unfavorable information about the USA’s role in the Vietnam War (Rudenstine, 2014). The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New York Times. It affirmed the principle of no prior restraint, which means that the government cannot stop the publication of a news story pro-actively, except in extremely rare circumstances. This case reaffirmed the robustness of press freedom in the USA.
Texas v. Johnson (1989): The Right to Flag Burning
This case involved Gregory Lee Johnson who burned an American flag as a form of political protest. This led to his arrest under a now-defunct Texas law banning “flag desecration” (Goldstein, 2016). The Supreme Court overturned his conviction stating that Johnson’s act was symbolic speech and, therefore, protected by the First Amendment. Here, we can see that ‘speech’ isn’t just about speaking but also symbolism. This decision significantly reinforced the idea of protection for symbolic speech under the freedom of speech.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010): Money is Speech
This case addressed the issue of campaign financing, where the court found that giving money to a political candidate was seen as ‘political speech’ and therefore protected by the first amendment (Magarian, 2010). Citizens United, a non-profit organization, challenged a regulation barring corporations and unions from funding political campaign ads. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United. This, in turn, allowed unlimited corporate spending in elections, asserting that such “political speech” was protected under the First Amendment. Detractors – including myself – think this case essentially positioned corporations as people, which is ridiculous, and led to the devastating hyper-politicization of elections we see to this day.
Snyder v. Phelps (2011): The Right to Offend
This case involved the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket military funerals with fundamentalist anti-military sentiments, resulting in an emotional distress lawsuit from the father of a fallen marine (Carpenter, 2011). The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Westboro Baptist Church. The justices argued that the expression represented matters of public concern, thus protected under the First Amendment, no matter how offensive this behavior truly was.
Schenck v. United States (1919): The Limitations of Free Speech
Charles Schenck, Secretary of the Socialist Party, was arrested for distributing leaflets opposing the draft during World War I (Lewis, 2008). The Supreme Court upheld his conviction under the Espionage Act, ruling that Schenck’s actions posed a “clear and present danger” to national security. This case is important as it established the “clear and present danger” standard for limiting freedom of speech. Although, in my opinion, this ruling was counter to many other Supreme Court findings that held very absolutist perspectives toward free speech, and demonstrated the constant right-wing leanings of US supreme courts over the years.
While “freedom of speech” can often seem like an expansive term, understanding its roots in the democratic principles of open discussion and societal checks and balances can offer some enlightening contexts. However, as discussed above, there are indeed certain conditions and restrictions and, like any freedom, it necessitates responsible handling. Interestingly, strong free speech laws in the USA have led to many perverse outcomes which demonstrates that they may be too lenient; while in my home country of Australia, free speech is often protected, but the laws are much more strict. Finding the right balance is extremely difficult.
Abernathy, M. (2007). First Amendment Law Handbook. Thomson/West.
Brimelow v. Alexandria Women’s Health Clinic, 132 S. Ct. 2681 (2012).
Carpenter, D. H. (2011). Westboro Church’s Funeral Picketing is Free Speech. Supreme Court Debates.
Franks, D. D. (2014). The Fifth Amendment: Double Jeopardy, Due Process, and the Nature of the Interrogation Process. Routledge.
Goldstein, R. (2016). Flag Burning and Free Speech: The Case of Texas v. Johnson. University Press Of Kansas.
Legal Information Institute. (2020). Freedom of Speech. Cornell Law School. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/freedom_of_speech
Lewis, A. (2008). Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment. Basic Books.
Lidsky, L. B. & Cotter, R. T. (2016). Freedom of the Press: A Reference Guide to the United States Constitution. Greenwood.
Magarian, G. P. (2010). The Democracy of Direct Speech. Wm. & Mary Law Review, 97.
Rudenstine, D. (2014). The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case. University of California Press.
Smith, K. E., & Kavanagh, D. (2015). Freedom of Speech: The History of an Idea. Penn State University Press.
Stroud, N. J. (2011). Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. Oxford University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]