The Contradictions of Free Speech


The notion of Freedom of Speech is suffused with contradictions. These inherent contradictions fuel past and present societal divisions and sustain the proliferation of  what have come to be known as “belief-gaps”. This article identifies the three main contradictions of Free Speech, each of the following contradictions will be discussed in relation to the issue of limiting free speech: the issue of Offence, the unequal access to free speech and the necessity for a cohesive space which enables  “reasonable disagreement”. 


The Issue of Offence

Over the last decade, the concept of  “offence” has increasingly been used as a tool to restrict another individual’s right to assert their view.  An increasingly common response of a party or individual outraged by a comment (for reasons such as religion, political opinion or sexual identity) is to assert their offence; the offender would have to withdraw their comment or otherwise risk social exclusion.

“Offence can be an extremely powerful instrument of censorship: humans are inherently social animals…”

Offence can be an extremely powerful instrument of censorship: humans are inherently social animals so exclusion from a group can be an excruciating punishment. In effect, most people are not willing to sacrifice their social capital for a comment, and hence will try not to cause offence to others.

However, in our increasingly diverse modern society “offence” should not be used as a guideline to establish the parameters in which  freedom of speech can be determined. Firstly, the notion of “offence” attacks the very nature of “Free speech”. Free speech is both about providing a voice for the majority but also the silenced minority. Free Speech is about addressing unspoken topics, and challenging our  own and societies , widespread assumptions. Having an open mindset on offence enable individuals to express their thoughts on a status quo, in the hopes of introducing new perspectives on a subject, and possibly improving our approach to the latter.Consequently, causing offence is an effective and efficient means in which any society can come to realise and address its problems.

Secondly, blocking a person’s right to speak because you have been offended perpetuates and increases the polarisation of people in society. If group A is blocked from asserting their view, owing to the fact that it will offend group B, it widens the already existing gap between these two entities.Most importantly, group A’s opinion will not disappear, on the contrary it will grow and without exposure to dissent or conflicting opinions it is likely it will become entrenched even further in their psyché. There is a need for group A to be told that their views are causing offence and through deliberation they may grow to understand why, this is how ideas and beliefs evolve throughout time. Discussion itself becomes increasingly impossible as growing belief-gaps impede the two groups ability to agree on even the framework of the debate (ie: what can and cannot be said) let alone the debates content.

Unequal Access to Free Speech

The ability for each individual to express their opinions freely and openly should not simply be regarded as a utopian ideal, it should be the norm. However, when structural power relations are taken into account, this is not the case. Not all parties and individuals have the same access to the deliberative platform as others. Subsequently, groups are often denied the platform to express their dissent or even a rebuttal to an argument being made within society. This inefficiency poses the second most significant contradiction to the notion of Free Speech ; in order for free speech to be an effective means of deliberation it must account for structural, cultural and social power relations, all the while without inhibiting or limiting the speech of any individual.   

“Not all parties have the same access to the deliberative platform…”

“Punching up is different to punching down”. Claire Chambers senior Lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge, highlights the importance of power relations when discussing free speech and offence. If the leader of the Free World ridicules and mocks already marginalised and oppressed groups in society, this is considered punching down. Where as offensive comments targeted towards the President made by the general public can be considered a legitimate criticism or dissent  which is regarded as punching up.

It is hard to disagree that the different power dynamics throughout society, mean that the free speech of one individual can have a disproportionate impact upon another party. However, power is a slippery slope to use in order to define Free Speech. It’s an inherently subjective method which cannot and will never be collectively agreed upon, and thus should be avoided when determining the parameters of what is or isn't acceptable to say and by whom.

Equal opportunity to speak and say whatever one wishes, does not always translate into equal opportunity of being heard or listened to. Miranda Fricker has defined this inefficiency of free speech as an “Epistemic Injustice”. Unequal power relations can result in subordinate  groups being ignored or denied the equal access to the debate that is granted to the dominant groups in society. In attempt to provide a platform where marginalised and oppressed groups can be heard many institutions across the UK and the US have adopted ‘safe spaces’. Areas where controversial  and ‘offensive’ perspectives are prohibited and often ‘no platformed’. However, not only is limiting speech in any form a slippery slope which should be avoided, ‘safe spaces’ do nothing but strengthen the voices of the dominant group and perpetuate the silencing of the marginalised groups within society.  It is only once in the marketplace of ideas and in the courts of public opinion where the voices of the oppressed will gain strength, and through criticism, support and contribution their arguments their voices will be bolstered and heard in society.


A Cohesive Space for “Reasonable Disagreement”

The final element of freedom of speech which contradicts with our points on Offence is the need to create a cohesive space for “reasonable disagreement”. A nation-state needs a base commonality of principles from which a framework for political discussions can be created, encouraging deliberation instead of confrontation from the onset. These principles, in the context of a liberal democracy are influenced by values of the enlightenment - helping society progress towards a better future by encouraging rational individuals to achieve their objective - and the national narrative of the state that will implement them. However, two main contradictions emerge from that reality:

(1) how to reconcile self-realization with the need for national values.

(2) How to create this space for “reasonable disagreement” based on common values without censoring free speech

The solution for the first contradiction is fairly simple: the right for self-realization - through freedom of speech - should supersede any national narratives. Indeed, as we have seen throughout history, national narratives can be the source of abusive free speech restrictions. A law that limits an individual's right to free speech in the interest of common values risks legitimising Mill’s “Tyranny of the Majority”. As always, not everyone agrees and identify with the current national discourse, such is their right. Moreover, freedom of speech is about allowing a society to self-criticise in order to improve its status quo. Criticism of a national discourse can be fruitful because it enables a society to organically adapt to evolving truths and social values. However, excessive criticism can lead to excessive plurality and threaten our need for “reasonable disagreement” in our deliberative space, which leads us to our second solution.

The solution for the second contradiction: instead of forcing national values through coercion, a State should promote common societal values through education and public ceremonies which transcends generational and political differences. The British monarchy for example preserves a coherent body politic through the many ceremonies it holds and the values it wishes to promote. America’s classroom tradition of “pledging allegiance to the flag” maintain the desired transcendence between generations revealing education’s role as a transmitter. In both cases, it is creating a rapport between the State and the citizens it seek to represent. Indeed, it is crucial that a citizen identifies with the values of the state, otherwise he could reject it all together and not participate in the democratic process.

The role of social media 

Respecting the views of the minority and protecting and preventing the the oppression of marginalised groups has traditionally been done through the use of social sanctions. Social media and the internet however, are making this balancing act even more precarious. As groups become increasingly  isolated in their digital cocoons, surrounded by voices similar to and representative of their own, the cohesive space that we argue is so vital to free speech is continuously being eroded.


“Facebook, Twitter and other internet platforms play an important role in providing a space where free speech is upheld.”

Facebook, Twitter and other internet platforms play an important role in providing a space where free speech is upheld. However, simply providing the platform is not enough, and distorts the reality of the public sphere and of the deliberative platform. Where social media falls short is that it does not ensure that speech is exposed to the marketplace of ideas — i.e views that are contrary and oppositional and dissenting —  which is where ‘offensive’ speech in society is confronted and faces dissent. Therefore, social media platforms provide our final contradiction of free speech. Which is that free speech is not advantageous to a society, and is often in fact damaging when it is not heard by all and is isolated from the court of public opinion.

On a practical level promoting a common set of values is vital to the success of a democracy. Social Media platforms have and enhanced duty, now more than ever to protect and provide a space that is conducive, and desirable to free speech. Through better representing the offline public space online social media companies must ensure that individuals are not simply exposed to views that reinforce their own arguments. They might do this through offering ‘flipside’ newsfeeds where users are shown news sources and stories that are the opposite to their ‘likes’.


In this article, we have addressed what we see as the three main contradictions that exist within the notion of 'Free Speech'. The issue of offence is one which has marred the debate so dramatically in recent years. We assert that to use the notion of 'offence' in order to determine the parameters of Free Speech and deliberation within society will have simply one outcome, and that is perpetuate the polarisation of individuals and groups to a point where discussion cannot and will not even be able to take place. The second contradiction which we outlined in this article is the unequal access to Free Speech that exists within society. Whilst recognising the importance of power relations and a structural understanding of   what can be considered "punching up" as opposed to "punching down", we assert that there can ultimately be no objective measure regarding power structures. Subsequently it is only once in the marketplace of ideas and in the courts of public opinion where the voices of the oppressed will gain strength, and through criticism, support and contribution their arguments their voices will be bolstered and heard in society. Finally,  the third contradiction is the need for a cohesive space in society which saw conflicting with an individual’s right to self-realise. Our proposed solutions were (1) an individual’s right for self-realisation should supersede a country’s national values and (2) a state should promote common values through education and public ceremonies, not coercion. Additionally, we tackled the necessity for a cohesive space in society in which reasonable disagreement can prevail. We call upon the social media platforms to consider the significance of their service and their duty, in representing the public sphere and preventing the isolation and polarisation of opinions.


This Article was written by Marc Le Chevallier and Finley Morris .