Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism


Right wing figures that spout offensive nonsense on a daily basis are quick to cry “free speech” whenever they are taken to task, or lose a job when they cross a line. But the debate about freedom of speech and “political correctness” (a phrase I would be happy to never hear again) is heating up on the left as people see an outburst of campus protest and desire for safe spaces.

Many critics on the left have said that excessive political correctness is damaging free speech, but as Lindy West points out, those tend to be privileged people who already have a voice.

Framing free speech and political correctness as opposing forces is a false dichotomy intended to derail uncomfortable but necessary conversations, a smokescreen ginned up by the ethically lazy. The fact is, political correctness doesn’t hinder free speech – it expands it. But for marginalised groups, rather than the status quo.

The protests at college campuses aren’t responses to one particular incident, but an ongoing pattern of feeling unwelcome and unsafe. Jelani Cobb writes about the balance of free speech with other liberties:

Faculty and students at both Yale and the University of Missouri who spoke to me about the protests were careful to point out that they were the culmination of long-simmering concerns. “It’s clear that the students’ anger and resentment were long in coming,” Holloway told me. “This is not about one or two things. It’s something systemic and we’re going to have to look at that.” The most severe recent incidents at both institutions—shouts of “nigger” directed at a black student at Missouri, a purported “white girls only” Yale fraternity party—will sound familiar to anyone who works at or even has substantial contact with an institution of higher education. Last month, women’s and civil-rights groups filed a Title IX complaint that campuses have not done enough to rein in Yik Yak, an anonymous forum that effectively serves as a clearinghouse of digital hostility. Last year, at the University of Connecticut, where I teach, white fraternity members harassed and purportedly shouted epithets at members of a black sorority; the incident generated an afterlife of hostility on Internet forums, where black female students were derided and ridiculed. Eight months ago, fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma were filmed singing an ode to lynching.

These are not abstractions. And this is where the arguments about the freedom of speech become most tone deaf. The freedom to offend the powerful is not equivalent to the freedom to bully the relatively disempowered. The enlightenment principles that undergird free speech also prescribed that the natural limits of one’s liberty lie at the precise point at which it begins to impose upon the liberty of another.

These aren’t new problems, but the changing ways we communicate mean that marginalized people have new tools to expose offensive behavior and hold people accountable:

The reality is, of course, that blackface and casual misogyny were just as corrosive to black and female humanity in 1998 as they are in 2015; sensitivity hasn’t changed – access has. The punchlines are punching back. But it’s much easier to ignore your complicity in oppressive systems if you can cast the people who have been legitimately harmed as “oversensitive”.

Infringing on free speech is not something to take lightly, but the frantic debate often misunderstands what exactly free speech is and isn’t. Laurie Penny offers a helpful list of  ten things “freedom of speech” doesn’t actually mean, and one thing it does that illuminates this struggle in the context of who is empowered by free speech.

Michelle Goldberg at Slate is concerned that policing people’s speech plays into the hands of hyperventilating conservatives who want to play the victim and portray liberals as unreasonable. I understand the argument, but we can’t let a possible threat allow us to throw marginalized people under the bus. Conservatives will twist things no matter what we do, and we shouldn’t let our behavior be dictated by their irrationality. We must take freedom of speech seriously, but also be willing to look at when the free speech argument is being used a cudgel to block uncomfortable arguments that disrupt the status quo.


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

8 thoughts on “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism”

  1. It’s not clear to me whether or not you support campus speech codes. My impression is that you do, but I’m hoping you don’t. You can restrict people’s speech, but you can’t restrict their thoughts; and forbidding them from speaking their thoughts will always make them more obstinate in believing them, whereas allowing them to speak freely and countering their speech with your speech at least has a chance of changing their thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “speech codes,” but that’s not what I’m thinking of. I’m talking about being sensitive to the environment offensive speech can cause, and that it’s fair for there to be consequences for speech that offends and harms other people.


      1. As long as the consequences for offensive speech consist of other people’s speech, and not punishments from campus administrators, faculty or student councils, I agree. People who express provocative opinions about other people should expect to be called bigots, and people who even express any opinions about other people should know they might be called bigots by someone. As long as they have the right to express their opinions and others have the right to express their disagreement, even if they do resort to name-calling, they will still eventually work out their differences.


      2. I think that’s true up to a point, though I think punishment can go beyond that if people are creating a hostile environment, in the way that someone can get fired for a pattern of racist or sexist comments because it creates a negative work environment.


  2. Really lovely writing on the subject of free speech, and I couldn’t agree more with you about the punchlines punching back. Here in the UK we haven’t really had the political backlash against ‘political correctness’, because our politicians aren’t nearly as right wing or brash, but public backlash still exists


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