I'm not one to categorize everything into free speech in order to make all things legal and acceptable (i.e., child pornography). But I do think that when one is speaking out -- even if what they're staying is completely stupid or inaccurate -- keeping that speech free and available is paramount to maintaining a free society. Without free speech, society lacks the give and take of healthy (and even not-so-healthy) debate. Without this debate, the public is largely disengaged from the system, leaving policy up to an elite few.
Up front and center in the arguments against free speech are muslim groups. The are consistently fighting the right of others to criticize their religion or to point out inconsistencies and problems with it. A couple years ago, a canadian news magazine called "Maclean's" published an article that basically claimed Islam is destroying western society. According to the New York Times, "Two members of the Canadian Islamic Congress say the magazine... violated a provincial hate speech law by stirring up hatred against Muslims. They say the magazine should be forbidden from saying similar things, forced to publish a rebuttal and made to compensate Muslims for injuring their 'dignity, feelings and self-respect.'"
So a magazine publishes an article (written by Canadian author Mark Steyn) criticizing Islam for their intolerance of western ways (including free speech) and the Islamic Congress responds by trying to silence the magazine, completely proving the author's point.
Canada, England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and India have all either signed international conventions banning hate speech or have written their own laws banning it. In Canada, Germany and France, it's a crime to deny the holocaust (one of those things that you can say here but everybody knows you're an idiot if you do). Both Israel and France disallow the sale of Nazi items. (I know that this is not illegal here -- there's a nasty trailer house not too far from where I live that hangs a swastika flag in their window!) Really, the fact that this is allowed here is quite helpful because it identifies the owner of the flag as the slime that he is. One need not even really get to know him first, which makes life much easier!
As Harvey A. Silverglate has said, "The world didn't suffer because too many people read 'Mein Kampf.' Sending Hitler on a speaking tour of the United States would have been quite a good idea." People would then have known what Hitler was really all about and would have been appalled by it.
Of course, we have legal philosophers such as Jeremy Waldron who say things like, "It is not clear to me that the Europeans are mistaken when they say that a liberal democracy must take affirmative responsibility for protecting the atmosphere of mutual respect against certain forms of vicious attack."
Anthony Lewis, a liberal formal New York Times columnist, has called for a re-examination of the Supreme Court's insistence that there is only one justification for making incitement a criminal offense: the likelihood of imminent violence. According to an article published in the New York Times on June 12th, 2008 by Adam Liptak, "The imminence requirement sets a high hurdle. Mere advocacy of violence, terrorism or the overthrow of the government is not enough; the words must be meant to and be likely to produce violence or lawlessness right away. A fiery speech urging an angry mob to immediately assault a black man in its midst probably qualifies as incitement under the First Amendment. A magazine article - or any publication - intended to stir up racial hatred surely does not."
However, Justice Holmes said regarding the First Amendment, "The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market. I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death." I must say, I tend to agree. Otherwise, who is deciding what is loathsome? What I would say is horrendous speech and what a person such as Fidel Castro would have found unacceptable are going to be two completely different things. With laws against offensive speech, what you are and are not allowed to say changes with the tide and with the leaders of the time.
Roger D. McConchie, the attorney representing Maclean's magazine, bemoaned the lack of justice in a system that condemns some speech as hate speech by saying, "Innocent intent is not a defense. Nor is truth. Nor is fair comment on true facts. Publication in the public interest and for the public benefit is not a defense. Opinion expressed in good faith is not a defense. Responsible journalism is not a defense."
Jason Gratl, a lawyer for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association compared Canadians to Americans by saying, "Canadians do not have a cast-iron stomach for offensive speech. We don't subscribe to a marketplace of ideas. Americans as a whole are more tough-minded and more prepared for verbal combat."
So we, in the United States, have freedom of speech. You can say what you want regardless of how it makes me feel. Whoopee!! But the thought police are out there, lurking... very interested in protecting the "feelings" of some, even to the point of squashing the truth in order to protect.
I love my country. I love the freedoms we still retain. If free speech is lost, then all is lost. Because without the freedom of speech, we cannot maintain a rule of the people, by the people and for the people.