False speech: What is it good for?

Associated Press

During a time of war in Europe and deep political divisions in the United States, there are calls for individuals, organizations and governments to suppress speech that makes others uncomfortable, speech that is hateful, or that is considered untrue, such as fake news. 

Arguments for free speech in the United States tend to begin and end with First and Fourteenth Amendments. The First Amendment prohibited federal government restrictions on speech: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) extended these prohibitions to state governments.  

These amendments generally do not apply to nongovernmental organizations such as universities, media, firms, clubs or nonprofit groups, and often these organizations will attempt to restrict or punish the speech of their employees, customers or outside individuals. Probably the most common justifications for such private censorship are that these groups perceive certain statements to be false, damaging to an organization’s functioning, or injurious to its reputation. But while censorship might be perceived to provide short-term advantages, there can be substantial long-term costs.

One argument against censorship by private organizations is that current beliefs of truth and falsehood could be wrong. As John Stuart Mill argued in “On Liberty” (1859), if a censored opinion is right, speech restrictions deny the chance for “exchanging error for truth.” All censorship is an arrogant assumption of infallibility. As a recent example, if a person or organization stated two years ago that the COVID-19 virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, China, the remark was dismissed as a conspiracy theory, xenophobic and racist. People who expressed this view faced social censure and, in some cases, threats to their employment. Now, the Wuhan lab origin of COVID-19 is considered plausible. Had opposing views not been suppressed, might we have discovered the truth about this critical issue more rapidly?

But what if the opposing view is clearly false; should such speech still be tolerated? If you rarely hear opposing views, you become less able to explain and defend views that you think are true. It is by countering false arguments with data, analysis and rhetoric that we build a strong foundation for what is true. But rarely hearing an opposing view makes one tend to become lazy or careless in thinking. Our society’s widespread tendency to respond with insults to views with which we disagree is a sign of this intellectual laziness.

But even if there are arguments for allowing false speech, should society allow hate speech? Or public speech that encourages violence towards members of a group based on race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or some other characteristic? Hate speech is a form of group libel.   

As Jacob Mchangama notes in “Free Speech: A History From Socrates to Social Media,” there is a long history of group libel laws — laws against hate speech — in the United States. Prior to the Civil War, many southern states passed laws banning publications and speeches that called for the abolition of slavery on the grounds that such “incendiary” speech insulted white Americans of the South and increased their fear of violent slave uprisings. After the war, similar group libel laws were used to suppress speeches and publications advocating for equal rights for Black Americans. 

Except for the United States, most nations today, whether democratic, authoritarian or totalitarian, have group libel laws to suppress hate speech. Should the U.S. join this almost universal consensus that hate speech should be banned? In the 1930s and 1940s, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Eleanor Roosevelt, who played a major part in writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, argued in favor of preserving this aspect of American exceptionalism — almost unlimited free speech. They made two arguments:  

First, if a particular group supports some hate speech laws but opposes others, it will be seen as hypocritical and its ability to overturn unfavorable laws will be compromised. The ACLU argued in 1934 that by defending the right of the racist Ku Klux Klan to speak, it would become almost impossible to legally curtail speech and writings that sought equal rights for minorities. One of the key lessons of the history of liberty is that the best way to protect your rights is to defend the same rights of others.

Second, as Roosevelt noted, laws against hate speech are almost invariably perverted to protect the powerful from being discomforted by the speech of the powerless. Elites will insist on laws preventing insults to themselves and groups they favor, while withholding such protections for groups they do not favor. Examples are numerous. In Finland, a former interior minister recently went on trial for hate speech for comments that included quoting a Bible text. And authoritarian governments are particularly enthusiastic to embrace laws against hate speech. In Russia, criticizing the government can be punished as hate speech for insulting the Russian people.

Individuals, organizations, societies and governments benefit from allowing, and openly refuting, false speech. Unless a speech calls for immediate physical violence, laws banning hate speech are weapons that tend to cause greater harm to the users than to the targets. Despite current external and internal disputes, the United States should continue its radical, 233-year-old experiment in ever expanding the limits of free speech.

Frank R. Gunter, Ph.D., is a professor of economics at Lehigh University and retired U.S. Marine colonel. The views expressed here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the university or its College of Business.

Tags ACLU Censorship First Amendment rights Freedom of speech Hate speech

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