Freedom of speech pros and cons are ripe for debate, despite this democratic principle’s cherished role in American politics. Here’s what both sides think. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Freedom of Speech Overview
Freedom of speech pros and cons evoke heated debate, despite its status as a cherished American value. Before analyzing contentious opinions, let’s review the history of this fundamental ideal.
According to History.com, the ancient Greeks established freedom of speech as a democratic principle during the late 5th century. “The ancient Greek word ‘parrhesia’ means ‘free speech,’ or ‘to speak candidly.’” Athenians freely discussed politics, religion, and government criticism in “some settings.”
In the US, the First Amendment to the constitution — ratified within the Bill of Rights in 1791 — protects freedom of speech. The amendment simply states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Supreme Court determines which types of speech are constitutionally protected in varied settings.
The United Nations also protects freedom of speech through its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948. Still, sociopolitical conflict and social and digital technology advancements fuel clashes over parameters and benefits of free speech worldwide.
Freedom of Speech Pros
Now, let’s dissect freedom of speech pros and cons, beginning with pros.
First, freedom of speech allows citizens to openly dissent against the government without fear of persecution. The First Amendment prohibits the US government from censoring opposition. Citizens are free to publicly share dissenting viewpoints and “peaceably” gather in protest. In contrast, authoritarian governments — including absolute monarchies and communist states — can limit, ban, and punish dissent.
Additionally, freedom of speech helps elicit social change. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil and LGBTQ rights, and other historical US social movements benefit from the ability to spread new ideas and gather in mass to demand change.
Freedom of speech and the press also help protect everyday citizens from the country’s elite. Private citizens, activists, and journalists use their voice to expose harmful activity by government officials, religious leaders, and corporate executives.
Another defined freedom of speech benefit is that not all speech is protected speech. In the US, speech that incites imminent and likely law violations presents a “clear and present danger,” and distributing obscene materials is prohibited.
Freedom of Speech Cons
Freedom of speech presents societal disadvantages as well.
First, freedom of speech can protect speech that others, including the majority, find offensive. For example, in 2017, the US Supreme Court unanimously reaffirmed that the US government may not restrict hate speech. “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate,’” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the opinion.
Opponents also argue that free speech protections can stifle unity among the people. China’s central government, for example, wields strong control over information shared through traditional and online news media and social media forums. This type of control makes it difficult for dissenting viewpoints to spread, fragment society, and spur organized social movements.
Lastly, freedom of speech makes it easier for false information to spread. In the US, slander, libel, and defamation are unlawful, but the First Amendment does not always account for false statements. Free speech protections can more widely disseminate false information, causing confusion and conflict — especially during a crisis.
Freedom of Speech Pros and Cons: What Both Sides Say
Free speech debates continue to flare locally and nationally.
One setting ripe for conflict: US college campuses. Summing up the situation, The Atlantic reports: “While conservative students defend the importance of inviting controversial speakers to campus and giving offense, many self-identified liberals are engaged in increasingly disruptive, even violent, efforts to shut them down. Free speech for some, they argue, serves only to silence and exclude others.”
Similarly, pundits on the left and right continue to debate the health of American free speech through combative cancel culture rhetoric. In recent years, numerous public figures face backlash for past and present comments and actions many deem offensive on social media. Conservatives warn that biased mass hysteria is sweeping the country, while liberals champion holding powerful individuals more accountable.
Additionally, at the highest level of politics, former Republican President Donald Trump waged battles on both sides of the freedom of speech debate. In 2019, the White House sought to investigate alleged anti-conservative bias among top social media companies. By the end of his presidency, however, multiple social media platforms permanently banned Trump due to violence incited during the January 6th Capitol insurrection.