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freedom of speech

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noun
the right of people to express their opinions publicly without governmental interference, subject to the laws against libel, incitement to violence or rebellion, etc.
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Which form is used to state an obligation or duty someone has?
Also called free speech.

Origin of freedom of speech

First recorded in 1940–45
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022

MORE ABOUT FREEDOM OF SPEECH

What is freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech is the right to express yourself publicly without the government interfering.

In the United States, the freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States through the First Amendment. (In other countries, freedom of speech may be protected or restricted based on a country’s constitution or laws.)

Although the term contains the word speech, freedom of speech extends to nonverbal means of expression, such as writing books, drawing pictures, wearing certain clothing, or performing dances.

Freedom of speech is often thought to mean that you can express yourself however you want in person or in media (including on the internet) without government interference. as long as you don’t break the law. In most cases, this is true in the U.S., since the Supreme Court has often ruled that the government can only restrict a citizen’s free speech if there is a credible fear of danger or threat.

However, there are some forms of expression that are not considered to be protected by the right to freedom of speech, such as speech that is thought to encourage sedition or insurrection against the government. Similarly, threatening to harm someone can be considered a criminal offense. The classic example of the kind of speech that is not protected is shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when it is not true)—due to it being potentially dangerous to others (the people in the theater).

There are some aspects of freedom of speech that are often misunderstood. The Constitution only protects your right to freedom of speech from the government. A private business, such as a social media platform or the company you work for, can restrict your speech if it violates their rules or negatively impacts their business. This is why social media platforms can ban people for violating the terms of service and why companies can legally terminate employees for some forms of expression, such as using language around customers that’s considered inappropriate.

Why is freedom of speech important?

In the United States, the right to freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, ratified in 1791. According to the amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.”

Although the amendment only mentions Congress, the Supreme Court has ruled that no government body can restrict freedom of speech.

The Supreme Court has also ruled that the right of freedom of speech protects even unpopular or offensive speech. For example, burning American flags (that you own) or expressing racist opinions is protected by the First Amendment.

However, the Supreme Court has restricted freedom of speech in certain circumstances that don’t involve threats or illegal activity, such as defamation, libel, fighting words, obscenity, and false advertising.

Besides these instances, the government is also able to restrict the freedom of speech of government employees. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) can legally punish broadcasters who don’t make an effort to prevent children from being exposed to content considered inappropriate.

Did you know … ?

The United Nations considers freedom of speech a universal human right. This stance was established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

What are real-life examples of freedom of speech?

This photograph shows Vietnam War protesters outside the White House. The government cannot silence peaceful protests like this one due to the right of freedom of speech.

“Anti-Vietnam war protest and demonstration in front of the White House in support of singer Eartha Kitt” by Warren K Leffer and Thomas O’Halloran. Source: Library of Congress

In general, Americans are fiercely protective of their freedom of speech, although many people do not realize that private companies can limit speech.

What other words are related to freedom of speech?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

The right to freedom of speech only applies to verbal communication.

How to use freedom of speech in a sentence

Cultural definitions for freedom of speech

freedom of speech

The right to speak without censorship or restraint by the government. Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment (see also First Amendment) to the Constitution. (See clear and present danger.)

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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