Free Speech

speech, freedom of

freedom of speech, liberty to speak and otherwise express oneself and one's opinions. Like freedom of the press (see press, freedom of the), which pertains to the publication of speech, freedom of speech itself has been absolute in no time or place. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars the federal government from "abridging the freedom of speech" ; since the 1920s the amendment's protections have been extended against state, as well as against federal, action.

Although speech is freer in the United States than in many societies, federal and state laws do restrict many kinds of expression. Some kinds of speech regarded as damaging to individual interests (e.g., libel and slander) are limited primarily by the threat of tort action; other forms of speech (e.g., obscenity) are restricted by law because they are regarded as damaging to society as a whole. Speech that is regarded as disruptive of public order has long been beyond protection (e.g., "fighting words" that cause a breach of the peace or false statements that cause general panic). The government also limits speech that threatens it directly; although sedition laws are rarely prosecuted in the United States, such rationales as a danger to "national security" have been invoked to silence criticism of or opposition to the government. Laws designed to silence opposition to organized religion (e.g., laws against blasphemy or heresy), common in some other countries, would run afoul of the First Amendment.

In recent decades speech controversies in the United States have involved, among other issues, whether and how "hate speech" directed at racial or other groups can be suppressed and what limitations may be imposed on speech in an attempt to combat sexual harassment. The definition of speech itself has been broadened to encompass "symbolic speech," which consists of actions that express opinions; thus, U.S. courts have held that burning the American flag as a protest is protected speech.

See G. R. Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2015, The Columbia University Press.

Free Speech: Selected full-text books and articles

Free Expression and Democracy in America: A History By Stephen M. Feldham University of Chicago Press, 2008
Free Expression in America: A Documentary History By Sheila Suess Kennedy Greenwood Press, 1999
Saving Our Children from the First Amendment By Kevin W. Saunders New York University Press, 2003
Freedom of Speech: Words Are Not Deeds By Harry M. Bracken Praeger Publishers, 1994
Free Speech and the Politics of Identity By David A. J. Richards Oxford University Press, 1999
The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s By Robert Cohen; Reginald E. Zelnik University of California Press, 2002
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