I have given two lines of argument to support free speech. But many people believe that free speech should be limited or restricted in some circumstances. I am not speaking of restrictions that are voluntary (such as politeness) but restrictions that are involuntary. These restrictions include restrictions for reasons of hate, offensiveness, sensitivity, practicality and power.

Some speech may be offensive to a particular group, especially one that is favored by the dominant culture or the government. This offensive speech may be sincerely spoken in a desire to reach the truth. It may not be. In either case, offending this group is viewed as a greater wrong than restricting free speech. For example, a frank and open comparison of Mohammed’ s sexual relationship with a nine-year old girl to the sexual relationships of pedophiles is offensive to many Muslims.

Some speech is hateful or appears hateful. Either form of this speech may be sincerely spoken as a part of a desire to reach the truth. However, speech that degrades, insults or defames people is sometimes thought of as indefensible. Since such speech harms individuals, this is seen as a good reason to forbid it. This is distinct from offensive speech because offensive speech is not hateful in either way. A good example of this kind of speech is claims that black people are mentally or morally inferior to other ‘ races’.

Other speech is forbidden for reasons of sensitivity. This is speech that is neither offensive nor hateful but may bring up painful memories, remind someone of something they are trying to repress or bring up an issue that has yet to be emotionally resolved. While polite conversation may take this into account, forbidding speech for this reason goes much further. An example of such a thing is discussing the emotional trauma of divorce with a recently divorced person.

Speech forbidden for reasons of practicality includes such things as shouting “fire” in a crowded building (when there is no fire), or requiring that everyone is silent when the professor is talking during class lectures at a university. The argument in these cases is that the practical requirements of the situation are such that free speech is already forbidden in practice. Changing this to permit free speech would harm the practice that currently happens without problems.

The final area that free speech is restricted is that of power. The argument is that some people who are powerful use their power to promote their opinions. They drown out opposing voices. One might think of the public school system as a means of the powerful to determine the opinions of the children they ‘ educate’. In order to avoid this, one might claim that equal time must be given for opposing opinions on issues.

As far as I know, these reasons are the only reasons given for restricting free speech in any way. I will examine each of them and demonstrate that they either misunderstand the nature of free speech, or lack a good reason to restrict it or both. After discussing these reasons, I will move on to a general consideration of issues related to free speech in general.

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Comments on Reasons to Restrict Free Speech

  1. Is there not an additional reason, for the privacy of people? There is a good argument for restricting one’s ability to share personal information (like somone’s medical details) without their consent. Does this fall under the “practical” category? Or perhaps it is hateful.

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