Is it OK to be offensive?

I have to write a paper on the limits of free speech called, "Should it be legal to make offensive comments in modern society?"

Here's the question...

Do citizens of modern democracies have the right to be protected from offensive language? Or do citizens have the right to say what they believe no matter what? Are there limits to the freedom of speech? Support your answer with specific examples from contemporary American society, showing both acceptable and unacceptable levels of offense.

Generally, I am leaning towards 'Yes' it is OK to be offensive. Can you give me your views on where you would set the limit of free speech. Thanks. :-)

Expert Answers

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The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to protect offensive speech (indeed, that's the only kind that needs protecting) but within certain limits. Going back to post 3, the first example, encouraging people to kill people, would be "fighting words," which call for acts of violence against private individuals. The second two examples from post 3, I think, would be constitutional. A great example of highly offensive speech that was recently protected by the Court's interpretation of the Constitution were the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church. They were protected because they were deemed public, and not aimed at evoking violence at or by anyone. This distinction can be applied to hate crime legislation as well. Speech that encourages people to hate a particular group is one thing, speech that encourages people to commit acts of violence against people is another. It is a very fine line.

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I would go along with the idea that speech intending to cause harm, to incite violence, and which might impinge upon the rights of an inividual (in terms of safety) crosses the line of propriety and shouldn't be protected.

The goal of rules governing speech should be to find a balance of the rights of individuals, providing as much freedom of speech for the speaker as possible while also protecting non-speakers in their rights. 

An example of acceptable speech (which bothers me rather profoundly): A group of people who would probably call themselves political activists, who are actually selling low-brow political literature to passersby, gathers across the street from my place of business monthly. Every month they put up a sign with the image of the president on it with a mustache painted on his face. 

The childishness only underlines the groups cynicism, to my mind, as they shill political literature that tauts numbers which are not corroborated or factual in support of a non-existent political cause (no candidates, no actual agenda). They are obvious frauds, really, but I defend their right to gather and to speak. I even defend their right to paint a mustache on one of my heroes. 

As I understand the spirit of the American Constitution, they can be as dumb as they want in public as long as they don't threaten to do more than paint a mustache on someone. 

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In today's society I would be very cautious about when and where one makes offensive remarks.  While you are constitutionally protected from persecution, you are not protected from all consequences.

Many employers and even friends and potential romantic interests and conducting searches on people before hiring/ getting involved with them.  A post of facebook, a blog, or even a message board comment could come back to haunt you if it falls outside of acceptable social perameters. 

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It is okay to be offensive, but that doesn't mean there aren't consequences to our words.  A KKK radio station might not have a large audience or much funding.  Yes, Eric Sanchez was terminated from his employment for his comments.  However, he still had the right to say what he said.  He is not under arrest for his comments.  A business is not going to employ someone to represent them that does not follow company rules.  Look at it from another angle.  A radio host on a KKK station would likely be terminated for making positive remarks about Jews or African-Americans.  In America, we have the freedom to say what we want to say, but that doesn't mean there won't be consequences to our personal lives.  Mel Gibson has made anti-Semitic remarks and has had to endure media coverage and boycotts of his films.  This doesn't mean he didn't have the right to say it, but it does mean that I have the right to disagree.

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Generally speaking, it is ok to say offensive things about other people unless you are threatening them in some real way. I would not support threatening them physically. You could, however, threaten to do something else, like boycott their business.

I would also want to draw the line regarding slander or libel. It should not be ok to intentionally say something untrue about someone that injures them in some way, even if it only injures their reputation.


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If we do not allow people to be offensive, we will essentially be banning all political speech.  Essentially any position a politician takes will be offensive to someone.  There is no way to draw a bright line between something that is gratuitously offensive and should be banned (like that church's protests at military funerals) and something that is a legitimate statement of a political opinion.

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