Free Speech

Learning Objectives

  • Reflect on the scope of free speech in the context of public speaking.

With ALL freedom comes responsibility, and the right to free speech is no exception. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution defines free speech this way:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Stencil graffiti of someone spraypainting Free Speech - Conditions Apply

Free speech isn’t limitless. The constitution doesn’t protect speech that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action,” as per Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).[1] It is also a felony under Title 18, Section 871 of the United States Legal Code to threaten the U.S. President.[2]

Our freedom to speak bears with it the responsibility to allow others the same right. It is not absolute in that we can say anything we choose, any time and any place. Our personal morals and the ethical boundaries should help make that clear.

To Watch

In this video, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and Goldman School of Public Policy Dean Henry E. Brady talk about free speech and hate speech in the context of a controversial decision to allow far-right political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at Berkeley (the speech was later canceled by the UC police because of protests they deemed violent).

You can view the transcript for “Hate Speech is Free Speech” here (opens in new window).

What to watch for:

Chancellor Christ is speaking extemporaneously here, so her style is more informal that it would be in a scripted speech, but she still constructs a highly structured argument for the importance of preserving the principle of free speech, even when we abhor what is being said.

Note also how Dean Brady uses his role as an interviewer or interlocutor (the other person in a dialogue) to explore her argument: “I want to push you a little harder though on this because the question is, how does protecting Milo Yiannopoulos’s right to engage in what I personally actually do think is fairly hateful speech—how does that protect my rights to free speech?”

Because free speech offers such broad legal protection, responsible speech is generally an ethical question rather than a legal one. Understanding the appropriate ethical boundaries shows thoughtfulness and intelligence as well as personal integrity. As we have seen, racial slurs, name calling, bashing a person or group, and other degrading language is unethical and often stops all sides from being heard in public discourse. Speech should not be weaponized by using this type of language. The freedom to express your opinion while not limiting or infringing on the rights of another person to express their opinion is an important aspect of public speaking. Meaningful conversations between individuals and civil discourse between nations all stem from the same moral and ethical considerations we have discussed and more detailed considerations we have not mentioned.

In the context of public speaking, we have a responsibility to be clear, honest, consistent, and meaningful as well as ethical in our communication. Not all misuses of free speech are illegal, but the vast majority are unethical. The challenge is to treat ethical considerations the same as breathing: something you do all the time so it becomes second nature.

Try It

  1. “Brandenburg v. Ohio.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Sept. 2020,
  2. “Threatening the President of the United States.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Sept. 2020,