speech, freedom of, liberty to speak and otherwise express oneself and one's opinions. Like freedom of the press (see press, freedom of the), which pertains to the publication of speech, freedom of speech itself has been absolute in no time or place. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars the federal government from "abridging the freedom of speech"; since the 1920s the amendment's protections have been extended against state, as well as against federal, action.
Although speech is freer in the United States than in many societies, federal and state laws do restrict many kinds of expression. Some kinds of speech regarded as damaging to individual interests (e.g., libel and slander) are limited primarily by the threat of tort action; other forms of speech (e.g., obscenity) are restricted by law because they are regarded as damaging to society as a whole. Speech that is regarded as disruptive of public order has long been beyond protection (e.g., "fighting words" that cause a breach of the peace or false statements that cause general panic). The government also limits speech that threatens it directly; although sedition laws are rarely prosecuted in the United States, such rationales as a danger to "national security" have been invoked to silence criticism of or opposition to the government. Laws designed to silence opposition to organized religion (e.g., laws against blasphemy or heresy), common in some other countries, would run afoul of the First Amendment.
In recent decades speech controversies in the United States have involved, among other issues, whether and how "hate speech" directed at racial or other groups can be suppressed and what limitations may be imposed on speech in an attempt to combat sexual harassment. The definition of speech itself has been broadened to encompass "symbolic speech," which consists of actions that express opinions; thus, U.S. courts have held that burning the American flag as a protest is protected speech.
See G. R. Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2004).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.