How Free Speech Works

Indian Muslim children shout anti-US slogans as they participate in a protest meeting against the film "Innocence of Muslims." In many countries, it is against the law to criticize or “blaspheme” a particular religion or religions in general.

In July 2012, an Egyptian-American man uploaded a 14-minute video to YouTube. It was a movie trailer by novice filmmaker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula called "Innocence of Muslims," and portrayed the prophet Muhammad as a fraud, a pedophile and a womanizer [source: Bodenheimer and Botelho]. An Arabic-dubbed version was released a month later, and in a matter of days, protests erupted throughout the Middle East and Africa. Some turned violent, and people died [source: Sengupta].

Far from arresting Nakoula (though he ended up in jail on a separate charge), U.S. police provided protection when he received death threats [source: Re]. It was a matter of law: In America, everyone has a right to speak his or her mind. Even if the message is insulting. Even, in many cases, if violence ensues. It's in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights, Amendment One:


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment offers no limits to the freedom of speech it guarantees. It's understandable: The constitutional framers had just won independence from British rule, which systematically restricted the flow of information, silenced minority viewpoints and jailed colonists for public expressions of dissent. Free speech, in their view, was the difference between an ignorant, uninvolved electorate and an informed, vigilant one. And the latter, they believed, was essential to a democracy's survival [source: Illinois First Amendment Center].

In practice, the freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment means that, by default, Americans may say whatever they please, and the government can't arrest them for it – at least not based on the content of their words. It also means the government can't enact restrictions on certain content before the fact of it being spoken, aka prior restraint [source: Emerson].

Over the last two centuries, limits on free speech have remained relatively few, but the definition of "speech" has widened considerably. Court rulings have expanded "speech" to include practically any kind of expression or communication witnessed by other people.


The Nature of U.S. Free Speech

Visual displays, symbolic acts, choice of attire, distribution of religious pamphlets, contributions to political campaigns, and the posting of pornography on the Internet are all eligible for First Amendment protection. In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that requiring school students to salute the flag denied them their First Amendment rights, and free speech came to include the freedom not to speak, too [source: PBS]. Facebook "Likes" became protected speech in 2013 [source: Kelly].

Free speech, then, is actually freedom of expression. Because the First Amendment is so broad, it is ultimately U.S. courts, and particularly the Supreme Court, that must determine which expressions are and are not protected from government interference [source: Legal Information Institute].


The most widely recognized criterion for determining the constitutionality of any proposed limit comes from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in explaining the majority opinion in 1919's Schenck v. United States[source: Encyclopaedia Britannica]. Charles Schenck had been arrested for distributing material discouraging compliance with the World War I draft, a violation of the 1917 Espionage Act. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that national interest in drafting soldiers trumped Schenck's right to free speech, and that the Espionage Act was constitutional. The explanation established a line of reasoning that is still in use a century later: Do "the words create a clear and present danger that they will bring about substantive evils Congress has a right to prevent?" [source: University of Missouri-Kansas City]. Holmes' opinion also included the oft-cited line: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic" [sources: Bill of Rights Institute, University of Missouri-Kansas City].

Still, wartime dissenting speech has been granted protection. During the Vietnam War, a man was arrested for disturbing the peace when he walked through an L.A. courthouse wearing a jacket that read "F*%k the Draft." The court found him to be within his rights, because anyone who saw his jacket could simply look away [source: FindLaw].

Simply stated, determining limits on free speech is about weighing public versus private interests [source: Illinois First Amendment Center]. This typically happens when a person is convicted of breaking a law, and the conviction is appealed on the basis that the law in question violates the right to free speech. The court may then establish a specific limitation if it finds the speech in question doesn't qualify for protection and/or it broke a law the court finds constitutional.

In addition to national security and interests, cases involving issues like incitement of violence, libel and obscenity all have resulted in limits on the right to speak.


Defining the Limits of Protection

Students protest in support of affirmative action outside the U.S. Supreme Court. The right to speak freely is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In 1972, Marvin Miller, who ran an adult-books business, mailed product brochures to homes at random. A mother whose child saw the adult-themed catalog called the police, and Miller was arrested for violating a California statute prohibiting distribution of "obscene" material. Miller appealed, claiming the statute violated his right to free speech [source:].

Historically, the Supreme Court has resisted defining expressions as obscene, lest it fall into the role of legislating morality [source: Illinois First Amendment Center]. Yet in Miller v. California, the 1973 Supreme Court found that Miller's speech did not qualify for protection, not necessarily because it was obscene, but because states had the right to regulate the distribution of pornography, and because Miller's speech exposed a protected class of people, children, to inappropriate content [source:]. (The case was a landmark one because it also specified a new, three-prong test for defining what is and is not obscene.)


On the other hand, in 2004, the Supreme Court found for the pornographers. Ashcroft v. the American Civil Liberties Union addressed the Child Online Protection Act, which required pornography publishers to restrict underage access. The court found the act to be unconstitutional on several grounds. First, it was not specific enough in its definition of inappropriate material, lending the government too much discretion in judging content; and its infringement on free speech went beyond what was necessary, since other approaches, like parental controls, could accomplish the goal of protecting children without limiting anyone's liberty [source: Oyez Project].

Digital communication has triggered a new generation of free-speech questions. The 2013 case, Bland v. Roberts, that extended speech to include clicking a Facebook "like" button involved two men who worked for a sheriff running for office; they were fired for liking (and commenting) on his opponent's Facebook page. They appealed their case on First Amendment grounds and won [source: Kelly]. In 2010, the Supreme Court determined that online videos depicting animal cruelty are protected as free speech, even though the acts themselves are against the law [source: Vicini].

That the "expression" of an illegal act may itself be legal underscores the complexities faced by the court in determining the limits of free speech.


Complexities in the Law

Law students from the University of the Philippines watch "Innocence of Muslims" in Manila. The film was banned by university officials but a law professor proceeded with it as part of a discussion on freedom of expression.
Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images

Court-established criteria make it difficult to limit free speech in America. Libel, for instance, is extraordinarily difficult to establish. For the publication of lies about a public figure to be deemed libelous, there must be proof the publisher knew the information was incorrect and published it anyway [source: Oyez Project].

It's the difficulty in limiting content based on incitement of violence (fighting words), that now tends to draw the greatest scrutiny. In America, unlike in many other Western democracies, hate speech is protected by law. The general American view is that the freedom to speak trumps the preference to not be insulted – or, in the words of Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman, "If your feelings are hurt, then that's your problem" [source: NPR]. On the other hand, in most European countries speech that "incites racial hatred," in particular Holocaust denial, is a criminal act [source: NPR]. In the wake of the violent response to "Innocence of Muslims" France prohibited groups from publicly protesting the video.


Still, while insulting speech falls under First Amendment protection, speech determined to be "fighting words" does not. But how is that determined?

For the content of an expression to "incite violence," that violence must be both likely and imminent[source: NPR]. The 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohio is a landmark here. Clarence Brandenburg said to a crowd at an Ohio Ku Klux Klan rally, "We're not a revengent organization, but if our President, our Congress, our Supreme Court, continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race, it's possible that there might have to be some revengeance taken" [source: University of Missouri-Kansas City]. Brandenburg was arrested for advocating violence. On appeal, the Supreme Court decided Brandenburg was within his rights [source: University of Missouri-Kansas City]. That one might reasonably predict violence as a possible outcome is not enough, and neither the probability nor the timing of the "revengeance" [sic] could be inferred from the speaker's words [source: NPR].

By these criteria, Nakoula's video "Innocence of Muslims" arguably did not rise to the level of fighting words. But people in other countries find it hard to understand why the U.S. would allow such a video to be shown.

"Many people around the world believe certain lines should not be crossed in public — and it's not just insulting religion, the state or the national culture. Many countries also have strong individual defamation laws," wrote Turkish professor Zeynep Tufekci in a CNN article.

Whether the U.S. definition of "inciting violence" will have to expand to accommodate the nature of digital communication remains to be seen. Speech that happens in America reaches the entire world in seconds, and the predictability of a violent response to particular expressions may eventually trump the right to speak [source: Tufekci]. For now, though, America won't hold Nakoula liable for the results of his cinematic expression. It won't even pull it from YouTube.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Free Speech Works

I was able to address only a handful of the landmark cases that have shaped the American understanding of free speech over the last two centuries. Many others have contributed significantly to our understanding of the limits of First Amendment protections. Of note, U.S. v. O'Brien, which found draft-card burning to be unprotected, and Texas v. Johnson, which found flag burning to be protected, are worth checking out for a deeper understanding of distinctions considered by the courts in determining which public or national interests trump individual ones.

Related Articles

  • American Bar. "Key Supreme Court Cases: Schenck v. United States." (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Center for Campus Free Speech. "Speech Zones." (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Emerson, Thomas. I. "The Doctrine of Prior Restraint." Yale Law School. (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica. "Freedom of speech." (Sept. 30, 2013)
  • FindLaw. "Cohen v. California." (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • The Free Dictionary. "Flag Salute Cases." (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Gross, Doug. "Twitter faces new pressure to limit hate speech." CNN. July 30, 2013. (Oct. 17, 2013)
  • Illinois First Amendment Center. "The First Amendment in History." (Sept. 30, 2013)
  • Illinois First Amendment Center. "Freedom of Speech." (Sept. 30, 2013)
  • Kelly, Heather. "U.S. Court says 'liking' something on Facebook is free speech." CNN. Sept. 19, 2013. (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Legal Information Institute. "First Amendment: An Overview." Cornell University Law School. (Sept. 30, 2013)
  • Los Angeles Times. 'Timeline: 'Innocence of Muslims' unrest." (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Lukianoff, Greg. "On Constitution Day, California College Student Ordered to Stop Handing out Constitutions." The Huffington Post. Sept. 19, 2013. (Sept. 30, 2013)
  • NPR. "Held Dear in U.S., Free Speech Perplexing Abroad." Sept. 19, 2012. (Sept. 30, 2013)
  • Oyez Project. "Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union." (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Oyez Project. "New York Times v. Sullivan." (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Perrino, Nico. "How One College Student Fought His School's 'Free Speech Zone' – And Won." Forbes. Sept. 13, 2013. (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Re, Gregg. "Death threats, petitions swirl online after anti-Islam filmmaker's identity is revealed." The Daily Caller. Sept. 17, 2012. (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Tufekci, Zeynep. "Why free speech is baffling to many." CNN. Sept. 14, 2012. (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • University of Missouri-Kansas City. "Brandenburg v. Ohio." (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • University of Missouri-Kansas City. "The 'Clear and Present Danger' Test." (Oct. 13, 2013)
  • Vicini, James. "Supreme Court strikes down animal cruelty law." Reuters. April 20, 2010. (Oct. 17, 2013)