What’s the Greatest Threat to Free Speech?

I think a big threat to free speech that the above commentors missed is this: career building self-censorship. You may have ideas that you want to express, but you’re going through tenure, or fear a potential employer won’t like them, or you want to be on the Supreme Court someday, and so you don’t say what you really think.

And, of course, Breibart’s response is (predictably) lame and partisan. All his political and religious correctness worries go one way.

Four others issues problematic to contemporary free speech that I’d highlight are these:

  • Cowardice in the face of jihadi fanatics and know-nothings. I’m thinking of Salmon Rushdie and the Islamic prohibition on making images of Muhammad.
  • The “medium is the message” factor in free speech (or, at least, quality extended speech). Electronic media generally favor the soundbite and this creates problems for one’s ability to communicate complexity in certain media, or engage in real, sustained, and vulnerable dialogue with those who disagree with you. 
  • The pay-to-play factor in speech. In media outlets like television, money hugely favors establishment politicians and corporations against individuals.
  • Politicians and corporations hiding behind soundbite culture. As such, they never really expose themselves to free speech venues where sustained criticism can play themselves out. I’m thinking of Sarah Palin’s media management bubble as an obvious example. The libertarian response to this is that you have a right to speak, but not a right to be heard or to force people into greater public and unmanaged exposure. Maybe so. But isn’t it depressing that so much contemporary media function most naturally in cycles of public relations spin (as opposed to unguarded debate, dialogue, and sustained analysis)?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to What’s the Greatest Threat to Free Speech?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I think there was quite a variety of opinions expressed. I don’t agree with them all, but I’ll fight for these people’s right to express them 🙂

  2. Zia says:


    “Cowardice in the face of jihadi fanatics and know-nothings.”
    You are 100% correct with this one. Many people, especially in media, are ignoring the biggest threat to civilized world. I think part of it has to do with the fact that they are afraid.
    As far as I am concerned, the Christian & Jewish fanatics are not as dangerous as Jihadist. They had their time during in the past to be destructive 9think dark ages, etc.), but today, their threat is minor. Sure, you have the idiots that think the world was created on Oct. 23, 4004 BC and want to change the science curriculum. They troll the internet and spread their pseudo-scientific arguments. But the truth of the matter is that they wont change anything and they wont kill anyone (not yest at least). They are nothing but a nuisance.
    Jihadist, on the other hand, are welling to die for their views; views that can not be challenged. How many objective studies are out there regarding the Koran? Not that many. Hopefully the world will wake up one day.

    keep up the good work.

    Religion is a disease, and not all diseases are the same. some are more deadly than others.

    • santitafarella says:


      Absolutely nobody gives a shit what, say, Jehovah Witnesses believe, or Mormons, or New Atheists, or Scientologists (unless, of course, you belong to one of these groups). And it would be the same with Islam but for three things: a significant portion of its adherents are violent or advocate violence, women in the religion are treated appallingly almost everywhere, and wherever Muslims are the majority in a country, religious pluralism and basic human rights seem to be under severe strain. If people take a live and let live attitude toward their religion, everybody gets along.

      You can believe in your religion strongly without concluding that the consciences and freedoms of nonbelievers are to be dissed. I’ve long wondered why that’s such a hard distinction for so many adults to make. Not everyone—indeed, almost no one—is likely to dig your particular version of religion (or irreligion). Deal with it.


      • Zia says:

        Great points Santi, I have to agree. I also agree that no one will dig my points of view, but it is hard to stay silent when one sees the threat.

        The “live and let live attitude toward their religion” is a great position, but it wont happen. Some religions instill in their followers the attitude that they are better than others. When this happens, there is no room for dialogue (only war/conflict).

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