John Stuart Mill once argued, that the only reason to limit one's action is to prevent harm to others (so called harm-principle). The same principle can be applied to freedom of speech: One could argue, that some speeches (for example hate speeches) can be forbidden, because they will lead to violence. There are other principles around (like the offense-principle by Feinberg) and let's say, we have found a principle, which seems reasonable, to regulate our freedom of speech. Now, is there a reason, to give scholar or students in universities more (or less) freedom of speech, than to regular people?

I would say, there is no reason, to give scholars or students more freedom of speech, but interestingly, there is something called "academic freedom". I heard (I don't know, if it's true), that in germany, you can be arrested, if you deny the holocaust. But if you are a scholar, then you can't be arrested or punished legally. Are there reasons, to give scholars more freedom of speech?


Regarding the German law

First, there is academic freedom, yes. It's in the 5th article, number 3 (Art. 5, Abs. 3 GG) of the german constitution, the Grundgesetz:

(3) Kunst und Wissenschaft, Forschung und Lehre sind frei. Die Freiheit der Lehre entbindet nicht von der Treue zur Verfassung.


Arts and sciences, research and teaching shall be free. The freedom of teaching shall not release any person from allegiance to the constitution.

Although only teaching is mentioned as bounded by allegiance to the constitution, the systematics of the Grundgesetz make clear that all these rights find their boundings in the first four articles if they collide. They can be found in english on this site.

Therefore, scholars and especially university professors (teachers and public officials) can of course be charged e.g. for denying holocaust, because they violate higher valued rights (i.e. human dignity, art.1 no. 1 and the moral law, art. 2 no. 1).

The reason for explicitly mentioning arts and sciences is for creating rights of their own that cannot be constrained in any way by general law or any other governmental action, unlike freedom of speech (see article 5 nos. 1 and 2). That means the only way to constrain these rights (but by higher valued rights, see above) is making a new constitution!

In this sense, the freedom of speech is extended (less restricted) for arts and sciences (as well as press in a wide understanding as "media", see Art. 5 I, sentence 3: "There shall be no censorship"), because they are more violative to governmental actions as they are supposed to express the whole range of opinions in public, even if the government may not like it.

Regarding extensions of freedom of speech

In a general understanding, any extension (or stronger restriction) of freedom of speech seems injust, because it contradicts any sense of equality. On the other hand, explicitely protecting public institutions like media, arts and scientific institutions seems inevatible. Look at e.g. Turkey (or Russia) what happens if you do not.

So as you can see, you should never equate equality with justice/fairness per se. In fact inequality has to happen if it proves to be better for society. In philosophy, this is manifested in e.g. Rawls' Second principle from Justice as Fairness.


Sorry if this answer is too technical and less philosophical than it could be, I studied german law for two years in Germany and misunderstandings like these are still taken personally ;)

  • "In a general understanding, any extension (or stronger restriction) of freedom of speech seems injust, because it contradicts any sense of equality" But what then of pornography/explicit sexual content ? And of various libel laws? Or special cases like the pharmaceutical industry which place rules on how medical products can be marketed and labeled? Apr 6 '16 at 22:32
  • @AlexanderSKing Well, I thought it would be clear that this should be read as "extension (or stronger restriction) compared to the freedom of speech a normal citizen without any special social function would have". Freedom of speech is of course always restricted by other values. As written, moral aspects are adressed in the higher valued Art. 2 no.1 as restricting any expression of personality. I do not get your pharmaceutical industry example in this context, though.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Apr 6 '16 at 22:40
  • Well from the point of view of fairness, those in the pharmaceutical industry (in the US) for example see themselves as having unfairly restricted free speech compared to other industries, as in "Why does everybody else get to say what they want about their products, while we have to back up all of our claims with evidence from clinical trials". So it is a 'negative' extension, to try to put it in your words. Apr 6 '16 at 22:44
  • @AlexanderSKing Ah, ok. Sounds typical. Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted to point out: Except human dignity there is nothing absolute and if we take equality as absolute weird things may happen. Like people wanting to say what thay want about their products although their products may kill people in contrast to the products of the industries they envy. I guess I should point out this conclusion a bit more?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Apr 6 '16 at 22:54

(This my own answer, not based on sources. I apologize for publishing it as an answer, but it is too long for comments.)

You are correct in invoking Mill's harm principle, but you are looking at the question backwards. I will try to explain this by analogy:

Per Mill's harm principle, the publication and broadcasting of pornography is restricted and not allowed in mainstream media that can be viewed by minors. It is however allowed in specialized pornographic media and in age restricted publications and programs. As such pornography is protected by freedom of speech, but it's publication is restricted to protect minors from harm, and you can be arrested for showing a movie or a book with explicit sexual acts in an inappropriate venue - freedom of speech not withstanding.

Similarly in your holocaust denial example, it is not that discussion of the topic is not protected by freedom of speech, it is. But, in the name of protecting people from hate speech and bigotry, whoever wants to deny the historical facts of holocaust has to clearly label it as scholarly research (as opposed to regular journalism or political writing), in the same way that the adult industry has to clearly label its products so that parents can protect their children from it.

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