Should freedom of speech accept speech against liberal values such as diversity? Focusing on a particular scenario as an example: If people want to protest against the existence of say black people, should they be allowed to?...

PS: Alhough the above example might seem a clear-cut example of where free speech ends, both historically (e.g. protests that took place in the US during the early 20th century against black people's equality) and in our very days (e.g. protests in the UK and the USA against Jews' existence), there have existed lack of moral clarity and of ethical guidelines on the matter.

  • 4
    "should" according to what end? or what standard of judgment?
    – Lowri
    Nov 9, 2023 at 23:40
  • 2
    Possible duplicate. Does this answer your question?
    – armand
    Nov 10, 2023 at 1:17
  • 5
    As we have seen in the last few years, anyone with the power to restrict speech for being anti-liberal (whether legally or not) is likely to use that power to restrict speech they disagree with by claiming that it's anti-liberal, even if it's not. You just can't trust people with that power. Nov 10, 2023 at 2:02
  • 6
    I don't think question invites good answers. How the limits on free speech "should" be determined is either a normative, non-philosophical question, or extremely broad. The examples given, "speech against liberal values" vs "chanting for the destruction of a minority" are wildly different. IMO this is several legal and political questions which would be hard to even scratch the surface of from a philosophical perspective. Nov 10, 2023 at 11:20
  • 2
    If people want to protest against the existence of say black people I would say that speech which advocates for violence should be rejected. And it's hard to imagine speech that "protest[s] against the existence of black people" as anything other than advocating violence. Nov 11, 2023 at 2:38

7 Answers 7

  1. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948:

    Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

    These and other human rights find their limitation in

    Article 29: […] 2. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society. 3. These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

  2. For an example, how these higher order rights from article 19 can be exchanged for small coin, see the code of conduct of stackexchange.

  3. The UNO proclamation denies "any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein."

    This statement does not prohibit to discuss and even change specific values. But most of the actions named in the OP's question are banned. Only the general term "other liberal values" from the question needs detailed definition.

  • It is too bad that after 75 years, the nations are still not united. If even 2 of them can't get along, I don't see how 182 will. But we can hope.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 12, 2023 at 0:43
  • How does one determine if a particular utterance is a discussion of values? Is OP's example not a reflection of someone's values? Who gets to decide? Expanding limitations on the the content of speech is chilling...
    – Z4-tier
    Nov 12, 2023 at 19:55

Freedom of speech is already abridged by laws on defamation, copyright infringement, national security, contempt of court etc. So the principle is already established that freedom of speech is not absolute. The UK already has laws against hate speech as well as incitement to violence. This stance by nations in the new millennium is founded on a long tradition of liberal philosophy. Philosophy has an active effect on our lives. John Stuart Mill's Harm Principle deals with this. Karl Popper stated that "society must be intolerant of intolerance". Speech against liberal values such as promotion of subjection of citizens to theocratic rule is intolerant, and cannot be tolerated in a liberal society.

  • 7
    It’s unhelpful to phrase this in absolutes like “cannot be tolerated”. You certainly point to good arguments that speech against liberal values can be harmful, and that there should be some limits on tolerance of it. But there are also many good and well-established arguments for some tolerance of it (e.g. the point in David Gudeman’s comment, that over-strong restrictions on illiberal speech can easily themselves become illiberal). Any serious discussion must start by acknowledging there are good arguments pulling both ways on this issue; the tricky question is how to balance them. Nov 10, 2023 at 12:30
  • 2
    I do not know what you mean by unhelpful. I quoted Popper and agreed with him.
    – Meanach
    Nov 10, 2023 at 13:55
  • 2
    Noting that many societies engage in a practice does very little to answer whether the practice is ethical. Nov 11, 2023 at 5:09
  • 2
    I do not normally respond to comments. I consider it a waste of time which risks abuse. I would recommend posting an answer as an alternative. I have edited my question to answer the point that you made.
    – Meanach
    Nov 11, 2023 at 12:21

No. The question is analogous to freedom of movement. I am entitled to move as I like, but with a very large number of conventional constraints. I cannot use my freedom of movement to break into your house, visit a foreign country without a passport, exceed the speed limit, block a public highway, walk into a theatre without a ticket, stab someone, drive when under the influence of drugs... there is a very wide range of movements that I am not allowed to perform without the threat of sanctions. Why should talking or typing be any different?

  • This is a very common sense answer.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 12, 2023 at 0:39

If the term hate speech had been around in the 1930's, you can bet your last dollar that anything supportive or defensive of Jewish people would have received that label under the Nazi regime.

The fact that this stands words on their heads is immaterial; people whose primary motive is the will to power will say any lie to get their way.

  • I think that a lot of people think laws against hate speech are the route to not having neo-Nazis and their ilk, while people whose opinions contribute something useful to society need not fear the heavy hand of the law. But looking at European countries, which many point to as the model for that kind of ideal, do such laws really accomplish what they claim? Neo-fascists govern in Italy and are resurgent in Germany (AfD) and France (Le Pen), while neo-Franquismo is still strong in Spain (Vox, elements of the PP). A recent British PM was Johnson, an open racist in the pure Trump mold.
    – Obie 2.0
    Nov 12, 2023 at 7:44
  • Meanwhile, restrictions on speech that goes against the values of society have proven very useful in safeguarding the interests of the powerful at the expense of everyone else. France, of course, leads the way with its burqa bans, hijab bans (for athletes), burkini bans, abaya bans, and most recently, pro-Palestinian protest bans, but several other European countries do not want to be left out, with Sweden having its own burqa ban. Spain does its own thing, locking up musicians who sing songs deemed as insulting the royal family.
    – Obie 2.0
    Nov 12, 2023 at 7:51
  • In other words, legal regimes that are permissive about restricting freedom of expression for the sake of "protecting society" not just would have been used to suppress inconvenient ideas, but in fact are. Meanwhile, bigots and extremists are only inconvenienced, both because they superficially alter their rhetoric and because they really do enjoy the tacit approval of much of the power structure (look at the recent Quran burning incident, for instance).
    – Obie 2.0
    Nov 12, 2023 at 7:56
  • I don't understand this answer. Can you elaborate please?
    – njzk2
    Nov 12, 2023 at 17:29
  • 1
    @Obie2.0 you should put your reply in a separate answer. It's well reasoned and worth more than just a footnote on someone else's post.
    – Z4-tier
    Nov 12, 2023 at 19:46

Questions about law and policy are questions about compulsion by the threat of violence.

The related question about moral permissibility has an obvious answer. You should not say morally wrong things. You should encourage other people to not say morally wrong things. But questions about policy aren't about you and your self control or your ability to influence others. They're about the application of the state's capacity for compulsion by the threat of violence - either directly, via the police power, or indirectly, by using the police power to take and guard a portion of the polity's resources and then using them to benefit people who comply.

The operative question is:

Who should be authorized to employ the threat of violence to compel or curtail certain kinds of speech; under what circumstances should they be so authorized; and who should be authorized, with how much discretion, to interpret the circumstances?

It is not nearly so obvious that it is good to empower the latest batch of crooked politicians and/or members of a mostly-hereditary empowered class to decide what to call bad and use the state's capacity for violence to curtail.

Nor is it obvious that a majority of poll-respondents should be empowered to decide this.

Consider religious speech. It's trivially easy to find a polity in which a majority of people believe that disagreeing with their religion's dogma about the nature of God is deeply immoral and harmful. It can be hard to recall this in the post-Christian cultural milieu, but for many people on Earth, when a person says the wrong things about God/s, they're inviting eternal death upon themselves and incurring the very real risk of divine punishment on their society.

Maybe more salient to modern English-speakers who don't have strong feelings about religion: there are plenty of polities in which a majority believe that disagreeing with their cultural apperception of a certain topic is abusive and harmful - and this is true for both of the rival cultural apperceptions. Relevant apperceptions include those of gender or sex; abortion; and fossil fuel use.

So we have a trade-off to manage: how can laws be written so as to reduce the amount of harmful speech as much as possible while...

  • limiting the ability of scumbag politicians to abuse their authority?

  • keeping the majority from using the police power to oppress the minority?

  • avoiding balkanization into armed rival cultural groups actively trying to kill each other out of a belief on both sides that this is necessary to protect the innocent or preserve the sacred?

If you want to know about a particular set of answers to this trade-off and arguments for and against them, I think you'll need to ask a follow-up question. The current question just invites personal opinions.

  • Shunning works too.
    – Scott Rowe
    Nov 12, 2023 at 0:34
  • "You should not say morally wrong things." which moral framework do we use, here? Mine or yours?
    – njzk2
    Nov 12, 2023 at 17:30
  • @njzk2 mine, obviously. Now, to the gulag with you for questioning me.
    – g s
    Nov 12, 2023 at 19:43
  • If you can't say morally wrong things, how will people find out you believe morally wrong things (or at least, think it would be useful if they came to believe them)? They might want to know that about you... Nov 12, 2023 at 21:52

As you allude to, I don't know if it's clear that the proposed scenario is a clear-cut example. In the United States, people protest against the existence of LGBT+ people all the time, and they are protected by the state to do so.

As others have referenced, it might be helpful to split this question into parts, where first, there is the question of whether hate speech has value in a liberal society, and second, there is the question of whether a governmental body should have authority over regulating hate speech.

For the former, I don't know if it's worth expanding on the answer here since I imagine you're asking more about the latter. But for context of my answer to the latter, I'll name that I personally think hate speech in everyday expression should not be uplifted in a liberal democracy.

However, I am more conflicted on the mechanism through which that should be enforced. The line between social norms and social policy is thin; there are plenty of things we generally understand are "bad" but aren't heavily regulated via policy (e.g., cheating on your girlfriend). Further, I think the definition of speech that incites violence or denies the rights of others is also thin. We can clearly name that protesting against LGBT+ people is intended to deny the rights of LGBT+ people. But what about issues like abortion, or the teaching of black history, or the myriad of other policy issues that affect a given population more than others? I think acting as if there's a simple answer potentially obfuscates the more critical question, which is how we as a society come to understand the values we choose to enforce or not.

Therefore, I think the most direct answer is going to depend on the democratic theory from which you're operating. I myself operate more from the deliberative democracy standpoint, where I am less concerned about the eventual rule than I am with the process through which we define that rule. Using a more liberal version of that theoretical perspective (more on the Guttman end of the spectrum, rather than Habermas), I'd argue the best we can do is make room for speech of all types, but simultaneously do our best to inculcate into citizens the self-determination and liberal values (which, in part, is done by infusing those values in deliberative spaces themselves) that would lead to social norms and systems of power that would resist hate speech much in the same way that explicit regulation would (and could themselves include regulation, as long as it's borne out of a liberal democracy).

Which is my very long way of saying "I don't think there's a definitive answer to this question, but if we rotate the question to focus on how we would as a society identify what speech we will allow or not, and how, we may come to a more robust solution."

  • I think it is not accurate to say that there are some people who protest against the existence of LGBTQ+ people, rather it is more accurate to say that there are conservative Americans who protest against LGBTQ+ people aggressively promoting the acceptance of homosexuality and transgenderism in America's elementary school systems.
    – user57467
    Nov 18, 2023 at 20:20
  • Have you ever been to a pride parade? Most in major cities are accompanied by a group of anti-LGBT activists who are very explicitly condemning LGBT people. Your cognitive split between protesting the existence of people and protesting the acceptance of said people aside, it is absolutely factual that there are common instances of religious fundamentalists protesting the literal existence of LGBT people. It is not hard to find pictures of them if you just look it up.
    – RickyB
    Nov 20, 2023 at 13:33

Never consider the love speech or hate speech as permanent. Freedom of speech is impermanent. Freedom of speech arises , changes and vanishes. Freedom of speech is not absolute in time and space. Today you might be allowed to speak against Muslims or Jews but tomorrow you may not be allowed to speak against them. You may be allowed to speak against Government in America but you may not be allowed to speak against it in China. Therefore the freedom of speech laws are impermanent in nature. They constantly change in time and space.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .