There are various questions regarding freedom of speech, but didn't find any about what it really means.

Therefore, what does it mean freedom of speech?

Is it the right to say everything without consequences?

  • 3
    I often see ideological bullies using the “consequences” line. They say “you are free to say X, but I’m free to punch you in the face for saying that.” This comes from the belief that “speech is violence” and such speech can be countered with physical violence. I’ve yet to hear any legitimate basis for believing that speech is violence, other than people wanting to stop others from expressing themselves, but I’m open to hearing reasons for it.
    – JacobIRR
    Commented Dec 3, 2020 at 15:47
  • 1
    Free speech is the right to shout "Theater" in a crowded fire. -- Abbie Hoffman. kurtfstone.com/blog/2017/6/11/…
    – user4894
    Commented Dec 10, 2020 at 3:54

4 Answers 4


In its broadest characterisation freedom of speech is (1) the ability and opportunity to communicate (2) opinions and attitudes about (3) any kind of subject matter. Communication can be by means, obviously enough, of spoken or written words - including nowadays of course on electronic communication systems such as Twitter and Facebook - images, films, pictures, and more besides. This is a list, not a complete enumeration.

Speech is not free to the extent that it is subject to state or governmental sanctions such as censorship or societal constraints such as intimidation (including death threats) and the use or threat of violence or extreme ostracism. I would add that speech is also not free to the extent that one self-censors under reasonable fear of such sanctions or constraints.

Freedom of speech is not an unrestricted good. It is not good when e.g. it licenses the spread of defamatory falsehoods or disseminates disinformation. If I broadcast lies about your character it is not at least one good element in the situation that, courtesy of the institution of free speech, I was free to do so.

Defamatory falsehoods and disinformation are (or are productive of) harms. There is no clear agreement on what constitutes a harm but when the mere fact of causing offence, intentionally or otherwise, is allowed to count as a harm and hence to check free speech, free speech is an empty liberty.

  • 2
    I understand that there may be some issues that result from the freedom of speech. It would be nice to understand all the trade-offs between limiting the speech (and differentwways it could be limited) and allowing it. On another hand, and quite relevant nowadays, a problem seems to arise when that freedom is restricted by private companies not basing themselves on law voted by one's representatives, or by a regulation — a governance democratically discussed and approved by democratic leaders. If you can recommend resources on this last point, I would be happy to read. Commented Feb 10, 2021 at 19:36

The right to say absolutely anything could be called "absolute freedom of speech", but that does not exist in any country.

"Regular" freedom of speech is typically understood as the freedom to express ideas, constrained only by restrictions that are considered minimal and reasonable. In the United States, for example, those restrictions include defamation, threats of or calls to violence, fraud, perjury, sometimes vulgarity, and certain time, place and manner restrictions.

There are other types of restrictions in other countries (such as hate speech laws, prohibitions on expressing sympathy for the Nazi ideology, denying the Holocaust, etc.). Some people would argue that these would not be consistent with freedom of speech, others say that such restrictions could still be compatible with freedom of speech provided they are minimal/reasonable in scope. But there is no clear-cut definition of "minimal" or "reasonable", so it's hard to objectively decide the issue.


Paul Ricoeur gives a definition of the democratic quality of society that goes as such (best effort translation and emphasis mine):

A democratic society recognizes it is divided, its citizens having contradictory interests, and has each citizen participate, equally, in expressing those contradictions, analysing them, and deliberating about them in order to solve them by an arbitration.

Est démocratique, une société qui se reconnaît divisée, c’est-à-dire traversée par des contradictions d’intérêt et qui se fixe comme modalité, d’associer à parts égales, chaque citoyen dans l’expression de ces contradictions, l’analyse de ces contradictions et la mise en délibération de ces contradictions, en vue d’arriver à un arbitrage.

I find it quite accurate and precise, and the emphasized part gives a good and pragmatic idea of what freedom of speech should be and why it is necessary for a society aspiring to be democratic, going further than the correct but less though inspiring "my freedom to wave my fist stops where your nose starts".

In order for each citizen to be equally able to express their interest and grievances, no topic can be taboo in public discourse, because citizens who have grievances or interests related to this topic would not be able to express their concern. If, for example, the law forbids to criticize a certain religion, then the people who do not believe in it but are forced to abide its rules can't express their understandable grievances about this situation. They are not able to take an equal part in the expression of grievances and interests in this society. If the leaders can't be criticized, people who are unsatisfied of their job, and there will always be some, can't express their interest and no deliberation or arbitration can occur about it.

This also gives a good idea of what should be the limits of freedom of speech: are insult, libel, spreading of false information contributing to the public debate ? False information certainly do nothing but muddy the waters and prevent a fair arbitration, so it can't be covered by freedom of speech, provided some leeway for honest mistakes (it's the famous example "is shouting FIRE! in a crowded theater a form of speech protected by free speech?"). Insult just harms its target while it should be possible to express any grievance in a neutral, polite way. Therefore insult too does not have to be protected by free speech.

The same principle can be applied to, say, the people who organize rallies to protest homosexuality during the funerals of homosexual people: they should be free to express their opinion about homosexuality, open the deliberation within society (where the general trend is they lose ground anyway...), but perturbing the mourning of a stricken family does not do anything for the public debate, and should therefore not be covered by freedom of speech.

It also goes against the idea that freedom of speech is only about the government not repressing dissent. If, for example, a powerful lobby can organize a protest each time a conference is given by someone they don't like and de-platform this person, they will de-facto make it more difficult to express ideas they dislike and deliberate about them in public. The same goes for giant corporations with a quasi monopoly on, say, video hosting on the internet. If this corporation decides to ban a certain set of ideas the people who holds these ideas have a lesser part in the public debate, and the society as a whole becomes less democratic.

In the end, what is important is to understand that democracy and freedom of speech can not be defined as a yes or no state of being, but that there is a spectrum, from total tyranny (one person has total deliberation power) to perfect democracy (each citizen has equal say). It is also probably impossible to properly measure and compare the part of each citizen in the deliberation, so the subject of equality and therefore what are the limits of free speech will always be open to debate. For example is satire a necessary tool to express opinions in the public debate, or just an insulting way to express a point of view that could have been formulated more neutrally?

  • Insult, libel? Fine. False info?? Hoo boy! How/Who decides? Are vaccinations helpful? Specifically covid? Is gender subjective? Did the current war in the Levant start on 7 October? Is it about religion or land? Most pointedly: Is it Israel-Palestine? Or Israel-Hamas? As with all hugely divisive questions the facts depend on whom you ask
    – Rushi
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 5:18
  • @Rushi "the fact depends on who you ask" is an idiotic stance. The facts are precisely what don't. Most of the questions you give as exemples are, precisely, not about facts. You seem confused about what facts are. Oh, and "are vaccination helpful?" is so firmly established as true that people who still claim otherwise should be tried for endangering other people's life.
    – armand
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 5:42
  • You conveniently ignore the addition about covid. To argue that smallpox measles etc have been anything but good for everyone at large is whacko. But covid?? Consider that a serious candidate for POTUS disputes it. And many other eminents. Anyway if you're strongly committed to one side of the dispute drop it. Take the others
    – Rushi
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 5:48
  • @Rushi including Covid. I could understand concerns in 2020 but we have years of experience and billions of people who took it. You might as well argue that water does not get things wet by now. And have you seen who has been POTUS lately? I hope you are not referring to the very guy who was taking credit for creating this same vaccine... (who am I kidding? there are only 2serious candidates...). If that is your best argument... Anyway, i see your concern about who decides what is true, but in some cases (recordings of saying the opposite, etc) the lies are just blatantly obvious.
    – armand
    Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 6:10

In the most simple words, freedom of speech is basically the right or the independence that is given to an individual of a particular country so that he/she can express his/her views without any fear of the authorities. Democracy is a governance system that provides this right to the fullest. The right to speech or the freedom to speech enables transparency among the citizens of the country. This can act as a great tool for the citizens through which the citizens can show their criticism or unacceptance related to a particular decision of the government.

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