When Should We Prohibit Offensive Speech?

Ronald A. Lindsay
Center for Inquiry
September 4, 2009


That was an easy question to answer. If we believe in free expression, then the government should not be allowed to censor speech or penalize speakers, no matter how disgusting or repugnant their expression. And, yes, this includes speech that most humanists would find deeply offensive and revolting.

Which brings me to the ill-advised decision by Dutch prosecutors to charge an Arab cultural group for hate speech because they published a cartoon suggesting that the Holocaust is a fabrication…

…In defending free expression we cannot pick and choose. Some may find cartoons unfairly ridiculing Americans or American leaders offensive — but, presumably, we don’t favor censorship of such material. Either we allow everyone to have their say, as sickening and as biased as their views may be, or we have the government deciding what is “too offensive.” I prefer the former option.

Some of those familiar with American law might ask about the so-called fighting words exception to the Constitution’s Free Speech Clause. It is true that, in theory, someone can be prosecuted for verbally assaulting someone else. But the United States Supreme Court has restrictively interpreted that doctrine so that “fighting words” must pose a threat of an imminent confrontation and serious violence. Essentially, the offending person must be literally in the face of another person. Publication of a cartoon obviously fails to meet that criterion…

The article continues at Center For Inquiry.

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