Freedom of Speech Resources

EXPLORE THE HISTORY, LAW, AND THEORY OF FREE SPEECH

Recent Controversies

Freedom of Speech on Campus

Since the late 1980s, colleges and universities around America have come under attack for what has frequently been termed "political correctness." Administrators, students, and even faculty are accused of imposing restrictions on speech in their schools by both formal and informal means for the sake of advancing liberal political goals. Such restrictions originally took the form of "speech codes," which were typically part of harassment policies in schools' codes of conduct that instituted penalties for vaguely defined forms of expression that were disparaging of certain identity groups. More recently, schools have been criticized for disinviting speakers under pressure from political student groups and for permitting students to disrupt events with invited speakers. Attention has also been brought to a recent trend in the use of "trigger warnings," which are meant to warn students that they will hear something that might traumatize them, and "safe spaces," which are zones in which students are guaranteed to be safe from offense. In public universities, these practices have raised constitutional questions, and speech codes, at least, have been consistently struck down by courts. In private schools these practices nevertheless raise questions about the role of freedom of speech in higher education.

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September 11, 2012

Benghazi and “The Innocence of Muslims”

An attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya that was initially attributed to outrage over an American-made video criticizing Islam raised questions about the relationship between the American commitment to freedom of speech and its international diplomacy and about the obligations of private American companies to freedom of speech abroad. In early September, 2012, an American citizen uploaded a privately funded short film called "The Innocence of Muslims" to youtube with Arabic subtitles. On September 11, shortly after its publication, protests erupted in response in Egypt and quickly spread to a number of other Muslim countries. During these protests a group of militant Libyans attacked the American embassy in Benghazi, killing five Americans including the ambassador. Two days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blamed the video and publicly condemned it, but also insisted that it was no justification for the violence. President Obama subsequently asked google to take it off of Youtube, but Google determined it did not violate Google's terms of service and left it up. In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Obama echoed Clinton's condemnation of the video and tried to explain to the international community the reasons why he did not force Google to remove it from Youtube. An investigation concluded later that the attack was not a spontaneous act connected with the protests over the "Innocence of Muslims" video, but was a previously-orchestrated terror attack. The initial sequence of events nevertheless have continued to spur debates over how America should present its First Amendment commitments to a world that does not wholly share these commitments. Although Youtube did not remove the video, it voluntarily blocked access to it in Libya and Egypt where the protests were most intense. The governments of several other Muslim countries banned Youtube when it did not take the video down.

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Chelsea Manning Army Leak, 2009-10
Edward Snowden NSA Leak, June 2013

Government Leaks

In the past decade, several controversial cases have emerged involving government leaks. Late in 2009, Chelsea Manning (at that time called by his birth name, Brad), a U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst in Iraq began transferring to WikiLeaks what would eventually amount to 750,000 government documents. In 2013, Edward Snowden, an American IT professional, gave journalists thousands of classified documents that he had taken from the NSA while doing contract work for them. Manning and Snowden were both charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, among other charges. While Manning served part of a prison sentence for her leak, Snowden fled America before disclosing his stolen documents and has since then received asylum in Russia. Snowden's and Manning's efforts to bring government secrets to light have been alternately lauded and condemned, revealing deep differences in our perception of the legitimacy of government secrecy and the rights and duties of government agents. More recently, the Trump administration has been plagued by leaks and has increased its efforts to investigate and prosecute them.

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Murder of Theo Van Gogh, November 2, 2004
Charlie Hebdo Attack, January 7, 2015
Curtis Culwell Center Attack, May 3, 2015

Islamic Extremism and Freedom of Speech

The principle of freedom of speech has come into intense and sometimes violent conflict with radical Islam in parts of the world, which considers blasphemy against its religion and its prophet Mohammed a punishable offense. While this can have profound implications for international relations and national security, it also poses a danger for individuals who offend Islam. When Salmon Rushdie published his novel The Satanic Verses in 1988, the Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini issued a "fatwa," an Islamic legal opinion, calling for Rushdie's death for blasphemy. Rushdie was forced to live in hiding and under police protection for years afterwards, and several other people involved in the book's publication were shot and stabbed. In 2004, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was shot to death for his short film Submission about the mistreatment of women in certain Islamic societies. In 2011, Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French magazine that had published controversial cartoons depicting Mohammed, was firebombed after it published an issue with Mohammed on the cover. In 2015, two Islamist gunmen forced their way into the magazines's headquarters, killed twelve of their staff, and wounded eleven. Four months later, gunmen attacked the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, when it exhibited art depicting Mohammed and hosted a contest for Mohammed cartoons.

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