Is the West 'falling out of love with free speech'? Jonathan Turley, Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University, thinks it might be and assembles a deal of evidence in support of that contention. The conflict of values from which the question arises may be posed thus. On the one hand, there is a commitment to the right to free speech, a right which many of us think is all but absolute, the only legitimate restraint on it (where it concerns general issues rather than the reputation of particular persons) being that which rules out open incitement to violence. On the other hand, many of us also think that as a matter of day-to-day courtesy and civility, one should not act or speak in such a way as needlessly to insult or offend others.
Now, posed in this fashion, there is nothing deeply problematic about reconciling the two moral considerations. Free speech is a right, conferring the liberty to say what one wants, and that includes saying words which may insult the beliefs of others and thereby offend those others. At the same time, we may think it wrong to exercise our right in this way. There's nothing unusual in holding that someone has a right to do a certain thing while simultaneously criticizing the way they've chosen to exercise their right. You have a right to marry whomever you want; your mother doesn't have to challenge your possession of this right in order to think, and say, that you are making a terrible mistake in marrying Gavin or Muriel.
So we can - and should - continue to insist on our rights to say and write whatever we want (short of inciting violence), at the same time as recommending as a general principle that people shouldn't go out of their way to offend others.
However, one thing that complicates this way of resolving a possible tension is when people taking offence at the free speech of others, exercised fully in accordance with their moral right to it, don't only take offence but take offence in ways that themselves threaten or actually perpetrate violence. If someone is murdered because of something they said, or wrote in a book, or because of something someone else said or wrote, or if they're threatened with murder or other violence, or if rioting and burning ensue on account of what has been said or written, then plainly the right to free speech is being challenged by conduct that is morally illegitimate and, in most jurisdictions, illegal.
People have as much right to take offence as they have to give it, but in a society in which free speech is valued there is also a civic duty to live with being offended, when you are, and only to respond to this within the boundaries imposed by the rule of law. There is certainly an obligation not to do violence against others because of mere words, however wounding. Those who ignore these limiting obligations therefore materially challenge the right to free speech, and a standard way of reaffirming a right that is challenged by others is to go ahead and exercise it in the very way they object to, so as to demonstrate that the threat of violence will not succeed in intimidating us.
That then creates a different tension: we shouldn't needlessly and deliberately offend others, though we have a right to; but if they impugn that right by threatening us should we say certain kinds of thing, we may want to say these kinds of thing precisely to prove that we have the right and that it is not in their gift. I don't propose any resolution of this tension; I merely note it. (Thanks: EG, MK.)