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Published: June 25, 2011

Freedom of speech

A vague, constantly shifting and highly controversial concept, under which citizens are free to express themselves orally and in print, without government interference. Protected to a certain extent by the FIRST AMENDMENT OF THE CONSTITUTION, freedom of speech in the United States is not and never has been unlimited. Oral or written expression is not constitutionally protected if it violates laws against libel, slander, incitement to riot or if it creates an imminent danger to the public welfare, promotes crime or constitutes obscenity, sedition, perjury or bribery. Like other civil liberties, freedom of speech is limited by the extent to which that freedom may infringe on the rights of or inflict harm on others. But all such limits are vague and have shifted dramatically from generation to generation throughout the history of the United States.
Closely tied to ACADEMIC FREEDOM, freedom of speech in schools, colleges and universities remains a controversial and unresolved question. Although protected by the Constitution, minors do not have the right of free speech in elementary and secondary schools if those schools have clearly stated policies outlining acceptable and unacceptable student conduct. Similarly, elementary and secondary school teachers are also restricted by their terms of employment, which usually provide lesson plans outlining what they may and may not teach.
At the college and university level, however, the question of freedom of speech is a far vaguer concept because students are legal adults and because so many institutions of higher learning publicly pledge to present students with all sides of every issue. The result at some institutions has been the occasional stifling of free speech, with students shouting epithets at or shouting down fellow students, faculty and visiting speakers—all in the name of “free speech.” Meanwhile, faculty members at some schools have presented specious research and distorted, exaggerated or even false historical facts to support their points of view—again, in the name of free speech.
The courts have been of little help in resolving the problem. Different courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have issued a wide range of confusing and often conflicting rulings on the clashes between the right of free expression and the right to live free from fear of humiliation and physical threat. New York courts, for example, deemed it unconstitutional for the City University of New York to strip a black professor of his department chairmanship in African studies for teaching students that Jews were responsible for black poverty in the United States. The courts also upheld that same professor’s right to teach that blacks were genetically superior to whites and a second professor’s right to insist that blacks are genetically inferior. On the other hand, the courts upheld Brown University’s right to punish a student for shouting obscene, antiblack remarks in a campus courtyard.