do we really believe in free speech?

In 1992 Nat Hentoff penned a fascinating work. It was entitled “Free Speech for Me — but Not for Thee”… an interesting thought, indeed.

“Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” That’s Amendment number one.

What does the right to free speech actually mean?

According to Cornell Law School, “The right to freedom of speech allows individuals to express themselves without government interference or regulation.” 

According to the ACLU, “The First Amendment guarantees our right to free expression and free association, which means that the government does not have the right to forbid us from saying what we like and writing what we like.”

And according to Wikipedia, “Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or legal sanction.” 

The First Amendment declares that the government can’t restrict our speech except in specific, substantially-justified situations, such as incitement speech, for example; the government can forbid speech “directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action.” There is also little to no legal protection for obscenity and child pornography. 

But it seems increasingly more, we begin to wonder whether reining back the right to free speech would be wise for far more than the above exceptions.

Note a Politico Livestream conversation from just last week, in which Facebook censorship board member and former Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said: “How do you moderate content and how do you find that balance between human rights and free speech, which is a human right, but also other human rights because free speech is not an absolute human right; it has to be balanced with all the human rights…”

What else do you hear there?

What other rights are being intruded upon by the freedom of expression?

And what does the social media executive perceive to be prudent in disregarding an amendment which has stood the test of time for the last 230 years?

Nat Hentoff actually keenly questions if we really believe in free speech…

Are we a little hypocritical, friends?

Do we really just want to silence those we disagree with?


Do we consider what we say to be truth and what another says to be opinion?

Do we deem our harsh words as necessary and another’s to be filled with hate?

And what if speech offends? Is it only ok if I agree?

Allow us to share the complete title of Hentoff’s insightful work. With its subtitle, the book is called: “Free Speech for Me — but Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other.” Hentoff gives multiple examples of persons on the left and right who change what they think, say, and believe about free speech based upon what is said and who is saying it. 

Writes Hentoff, “Those who created this country chose freedom. With all of its dangers. And do you know the riskiest part of that choice they made? They actually believed that we could be trusted to make up our own minds in the whirl of differing ideas. That we could be trusted to remain free, even when there were very, very seductive voices — taking advantage of our freedom of speech — who were trying to turn this country into the kind of place where the government could tell you what you can and cannot do.”


“… that we could be trusted to make up our own minds in the whirl of differing ideas…”

I continue to pause, soberly seeing a little more how the First Amendment is less about what we can do and more about what the government cannot.