The Cato Institute published their Free Speech and Tolerance Survey for 2017 at the end of October. In their research, they asked over 2,000 United States citizens about their opinions on free speech. Their study revealed that 50% of Americans think businesses with religious objections should still be required to serve those who identify as gay and lesbian as a general rule (which the wedding vendors who have been sued are happy to do), but 68% believe a baker should not be required to bake a custom wedding cake for a same-sex wedding ceremony. These results show that, at least on this issue, Americans can identify and support a genuine desire to live according to one’s religious beliefs.
The survey also revealed that most Americans feel that political correctness is preventing important discussions (71%) and feel afraid to voice their opinions (58%). Additionally, while an overwhelming majority (79%) of Americans find hate speech “morally unacceptable,” only 40% believe the government should prevent public expressions of hate speech.
If most Americans believe in the value of free speech, even to the point of allowing hate speech, why is there so much outrage over speech in our society? The problem lies in the conflicting ideas of what Americans find offensive. In the survey, people’s answers followed closely to party values. Despite their support for free speech as an idea, most strong liberals (51%) think it’s acceptable to punch Nazis; and most conservatives (53%) support revoking citizenship status of individuals who burn the American flag. While both sides of the political spectrum would like to punish specific speech that they find offensive, they need to recognize that taking away free speech would hurt each other equally.
There is no clear consensus on what classifies as “hateful” or “offensive” speech among Americans. A majority of liberals (59%) think saying people who identify as transgender have a mental disorder is hate speech, however the majority of conservatives disagree. While 39% of conservatives think saying the police are “racist” is hate speech, only 17% of liberals agree. Given the highly partisan viewpoint that individuals are placing on speech, any laws to censor speech would be completely dependent on which political party was currently holding a majority on Capitol Hill. This would destroy the basic principle of free speech.
The right to speak freely is a foundational right of our nation. It allows citizens to voice their displeasure with our current government, society, or situation, and through dialogue, devise a plan for improvement. Without this right, citizens would lose the ability to hold their government accountable or merely express their opinions, as the party in power could suppress the spread of any ideas they disliked. This could have devastating effects on Americans’ right to assemble, right to protest, freedom of the press, and religious freedom.
Has society already destroyed the acceptance of free speech? A majority of Americans are afraid to publicly voice their opinions. It’s not hard to imagine why when 59% of Democrats believe employers should punish their employees for offensive Facebook posts. However, freedom of speech is still a constitutional right for every American citizen. While an argument for censorship can sound convincing in today’s divisive climate, it is important to remember the equality that freedom of speech gives to each citizen.
Ultimately, we need to remember the origin of the Bill of Rights that our Founding Fathers fought so hard to achieve. Being occasionally offended is a small price to pay to ensure freedom of speech for all citizens, regardless of their political party.