In practice, free speech isn't absolute
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Recently, controversies at universities around the country have caused conflict about the meaning of freedom of speech. Disruption to planned speakers who incite strong reactions has ignited outrage amongst students and the media. In order to get to the bottom of the debate, we need to think more about the different arguments about freedom of speech. Salman Rushdie, who was infamously censored for writing a bit of literature, once said that without the freedom to offend, freedom of expression ceases to exist at all. That is to say that in order to have meaningful freedom of speech, all views, ideas and volitions must have the right to exist without intimidation or punishment, no matter how disagreeable or estranged from our own they are. Once you ban one thing, there is a slippery slope, and suddenly all censorship becomes permissible. So we’ve agreed it’s best just to permit everything. No matter how awful. It’s expected that ‘liberal’ societies will protect our rights to hold our views and bang our drums. But are all voices created equal, and do they necessarily have the right to be heard all of the time? It is a question that is harder to answer than it may first appear. Standard arguments for freedom of speech as freedom to offend appeal to our western liberal values, which forbid the prohibiting of self-expression, but there is a gap between the rhetoric of free speech and what it really means in practice.
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