College campuses have long been bastions of free speech where just about any idea can be discussed or debated. In the 1960s, the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley was launched to protest restrictions on free speech and political activities on college campuses.
Ironically, the opposite is happening today. Now, many administrators and college students are arguing to restrict free speech. More and more, people are labeling speech they deem offensive as “violence,” and many are using intimidation, threats, heckler’s vetoes, destruction of property, and violence to shut down the speech of those with whom they disagree. Some even justify such misconduct in the name of exercising their “speech.”
But speech is not violence, and violence is not speech. To misunderstand this is to misunderstand the nature of freedom and the importance of free speech in civilized society.
What speech does the First Amendment protect?
The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” This provision offers broad protections for various kinds of speech, including talking, writing, art, messages on clothing, political donations, symbolic speech (like marches or burning a flag), and many others.
Alliance Defending Freedom has represented parties in several key U.S. Supreme Court cases protecting the freedom of speech, including Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015), NIFLA v. Becerra (2018), and 303 Creative v. Elenis (2023).
What speech does the First Amendment not protect?
Despite broad protections for the freedom of speech, there are some important exceptions—speech that the First Amendment does not protect, such as:
- Incitement – Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969)
- Obscenity – Miller v. California (1973)
- Defamation and libel – New York Times Company v. Sullivan (1964)
- Fraud – Illinois ex rel. Madigan v. Telemarketing Associates, Inc. (2003)
- Fighting words – Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)
- True threats – Virginia v. Black (2003), Counterman v. Colorado (2023)
- Speech integral to criminal conduct – Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Company (1949)
Notice what is not on this list: speech a person deems “offensive” or even “hateful.”
In Texas v. Johnson (1989), the Supreme Court said that “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” For this reason, Supreme Court rulings have protected even the vile speech of Nazis (National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie (1977)) and the Westboro Baptist Church, known for protesting the funerals of fallen soldiers (Snyder v. Phelps (2011)).
The reason the Court has protected such reprehensible speech is not that such speech is necessarily good. On the contrary, messages like those described above can be hurtful or downright evil. Yet that speech is protected because, as former ACLU president Nadine Strossen writes in her book HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship, “If we allowed government to suppress speech that might exert a negative influence on our minds or actions, then no speech would be safe.”
In other words, if the government were given the power to regulate hurtful speech, then anyone’s views could be targeted for censorship—conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, religious or atheist. Those in power could censor any disfavored view they please—simply by labeling it offensive, uncivil, hateful, or harmful.
Speech can hurt, but it is not violence
Words have power. Few would dispute that words, and the ideas they represent, have the potential to accomplish great things for good or ill. As University of Chicago professor Richard M. Weaver once wrote, ideas have consequences.
Because words have power, some assert that certain words should be considered “violence.”
For example, Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and psychologist writing at The New York Times, argues that the long-term negative physical effects of words that induce stress could be considered violence. “If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech—at least certain types of speech—can be a form of violence.”
On this basis, Barrett argues that provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos should not be allowed to speak at public campuses because he is “part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse.”
Jonathan Haidt, professor of social psychology at New York University, and Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) point out a flaw in Barrett’s reasoning. In an Atlantic article, they write that if we follow Barrett’s logic, “The resulting inference should be merely that words can cause physical harm, not that words are violence. If you’re not convinced, just re-run the syllogism starting with ‘gossiping about a rival,’ for example, or ‘giving one’s students a lot of homework.’ Both practices can cause prolonged stress to others, but that doesn’t turn them into forms of violence.”
They also note that Barrett’s example of having Yiannopoulos once on campus does not fulfill her own criteria of long-term stress, since, presumably, it would be a one-time event.
All of this to say: words can certainly hurt our feelings in the short term, and prolonged verbal abuse can lead to adverse physical and emotional effects in the long term. We don’t want to ignore the harm that caustic and abusive words can cause. But acknowledging that speech can hurt is different than labeling speech as violence. Here’s why:
1. Speech and violence are substantively different
Nadine Strossen notes that physical violence (like punching someone) has a 1-to-1 correspondence between the action and the harm done. The potential harm in words, however, largely depends on the person hearing the words and his or her perception of their meaning.
As Dr. Pamela Paresky writes in Psychology Today, “Two people can interact with the same circumstances and perceive the stress of that experience differently. If one person tells herself that listening to a speaker is going to be intolerable and harmful, it stands to reason that the experience will be more stressful for her than it will be for the person who tells herself it will be illuminating, or an opportunity to defeat a bad idea. (Or a chance to take a nap...).”
These kinds of situations can become self-fulfilling prophecies. If college students are being told that offensive ideas will harm them if they merely listen to those words or engage in civil dialogue with someone who holds opposing views, then it is far more likely they will feel psychically or emotionally harmed by the interaction than if they see it as an opportunity to learn.
All this to say, words don’t pose an intrinsic harm in the same way that physical violence does. Physical violence has direct, immediate, and destructive consequences. The potential harm from words, however, largely rests on the interpretation of the person hearing them.
2. Offensiveness is hopelessly subjective
What someone perceives as offensive will vary greatly from person to person. If the government were to attempt to regulate speech based on offensiveness, it would not only have to sort out petty squabbles, treating free people like naughty children; it would also make minority viewpoints subject to the whims and perceptions of those in power and what they deem “offensive.”
3. Most speech that directly harms others is already illegal
As noted above, types of speech that have a more direct correlation to harm (like incitement, fighting words, fraud, and defamation) are already illegal and subject to government regulation.
4. Classifying speech as “violence” leads to more actual violence.
If we call speech “violence” in the same way as we would physical violence, people feel more justified in using physical violence to stifle speech. If we outlaw our nonviolent tools of resolving conflict (i.e., expressing and then debating different perspectives on current issues), we are left only with violent tools. Some have already argued for using violence, and many are taking action. Some ADF clients and employees have experienced similar situations.
- In 2017, a Fresno State University professor wiped away a Students for Life chalk display—and instructed his students to do the same—in the name of exercising his “speech.” After filing a lawsuit against the professor, ADF secured a settlement and the professor had to undergo First Amendment training by ADF attorneys.
- In 2022, ADF’s then-General Counsel Kristen Waggoner was harassed, intimidated, and shouted down by protesters during an event at Yale Law School. Police had to be called so that Kristen and Monica Miller of the American Humanist Association (with whom Kristen was supposed to dialogue) could be escorted to safety. (Yale later reinvited Kristen to a different event in January 2023, and thankfully, she was able to speak without being shouted down.)
- In March 2023, Students for Life of America held an event at Virginia Commonwealth University. The invited speakers were shouted down with obscenities, called Nazis, and physically attacked by students while police and the university did little to stop the violence. After ADF filed a demand letter, the university allowed a “do-over” event where proper security ensured the event could take place.
Viewing free speech as, well, “speech” allows for a conversation and dialogue to take place. As Lukianoff writes, “Ironically, the whole point of freedom of speech, from its beginning, has been to enable people to sort things out without resorting to violence.”
The potential harms that might come from speech do not justify the actual harm that will come with violence.
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Most of us learned this saying as children to help us build resilience against hurtful things people might say to us. While the sentiment may seem to minimize the hurt words can inflict, it speaks to something much deeper that we need to recapture as a culture: while we can’t always choose how words make us feel in the moment, we always have a choice in how we respond to words.
In a free society, the way we respond to offensive, upsetting, or hateful speech is through more speech and peaceful engagement, not censorship or violence. Whether we dialogue, debate, ridicule, ignore, or remain silent, all are valid exercises of our First Amendment rights.
Words are powerful because words are intimately connected to how we express and pursue truth. We use words to debate important ideas and talk through deep existential questions, even with those with whom we vehemently disagree. Doing so peacefully is a hallmark of civilized society.
Calling speech “violence” won’t reduce harm. It won’t make us safe. It will only make us less free.