Right/Freedom of Expression/Conflicts with other Rights

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Freedom of Expression

Are there other specific rights that are critical to the exercise of this right? Can you identify specific examples of this? 🖉 edit

Although the idea of freedom of expression, as a right distinct from other rights, was only elucidated in the mid-20th century, multiple theorists advocated for something closely resembling freedom of expression long before that, even if they did not use the term. From these sources we get a sense of what freedom of expression entails, and of its value as a foundation for so many of the other rights that citizens exercise in a democratic society. What seems less evident, however, is the rights that freedom of expression is itself founded on – and therefore, what rights one must have to be able to exercise it. Based on an analysis of the meaning of expression, those rights include freedom of speech and of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.

Freedom of expression was first explicitly guaranteed, or at least widely accepted for the first time, in the system of international law established in the aftermath of World War II. Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers” (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, 5). The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights similarly states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression;” this consists of the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds… orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice” (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966, 10).

Long before this, though, ideas hinting at a right to hold and express opinions can be found in political literature. In 1644, after Parliament passed an ordinance requiring pre-publication review of any printed material by the government, English poet-philosopher John Milton protested by anonymously publishing the polemic Areopagitica, in which he wrote, “give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties” (Milton 1644, 57). In 1789, James Madison wrote an early draft of the First Amendment which read, “the people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments…” (Read 2009). In his seminal 1859 treatise On Liberty, John Stuart Mill defended the freedom to express socially disfavored opinions: “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it” (Mill 1859, 19). United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in 1927: “[the Founding Fathers] believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile…that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government” (Whitney v. California 1927, 274). Ten years later, his colleague Justice Benjamin Cardozo wrote that the “freedom of thought, and speech” is “the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom” (Palko v. Connecticut 1937, 302).

Together, these quotes imply a multi-pronged freedom of expression, which can be seen mirrored in the definitions (“seek, receive, impart”) given in the international statutes that guarantee this right today. Freedom of expression can thus be understood as comprised of the freedom to form opinions (and therefore the freedom to access the information required to do so), the freedom to proclaim those opinions, and the freedom to share and debate those opinions with one’s fellow citizens. They likewise give a sense of how crucial freedom of expression is to the functioning of democracy, and indeed to liberty itself; that it acts as a safeguard that protects all other rights.

Therefore, to answer the question of what rights are needed for one to have freedom of expression, we can ask what rights are necessary for the realization of each of the above prongs. First and foremost, we can intuitively appreciate that freedom of speech and of the press are essential for the ability to form, declare, and discuss opinions. This double-barreled right is intimated in the aforementioned writings: Milton advocates the liberty to “utter,” and Madison and both Justices specifically refer to speech; the necessity of a concomitant freedom of the press is supported by Milton’s call for a liberty to know, and by Madison’s reference to the freedom to write and publish one’s views in a manner distinct from speech. Freedom of assembly (referenced by Brandeis) is similarly crucial for the practical ability to exercise the right to expression: a citizen cannot fully acquire information and form opinions based on it, or fully participate in debates about those opinions, without the freedom to interact with as many diverse voices as they possibly can. Finally, though not specifically mentioned above, freedom of religion is required as well. This is not only because one topic that many people wish to express the strongest of opinions about is religion, but because religious expression often encompasses actions as well as speech and writing, and thus would not be sufficiently protected without its own discrete supportive right.

The most foundational body of law laying out these rights is the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which has inspired language in the constitutions of countless other countries. Moreover, due to the uniquely American practice of judicial review, US Supreme Court cases can provide illustrative examples of how these rights are vital to the freedom of expression.

In the early history of First Amendment jurisprudence, the Supreme Court proved amenable to claims that speech and the press could be restricted if there was a “clear and present danger” to national security or other critical national interests, as outlined in the 1919 case Schenck v. United States, and subsequently reinforced with Abrams v. United States that same year. Issued amid the nationalist fervor of World War I, both cases concerned people punished for distributing anti-war writings under the 1917 Espionage Act, which broadly criminalized interfering with the war effort or undermining public morale (Schenck v. United States 1919, Abrams v. United States 1919). Likewise in Whitney v. California (1927), the Court upheld a conviction under California’s “criminal syndicalism” law, which criminalized speech that advocated for social or political change by force, even if it was in general and imprecise terms. In that case, the convicted person had been a member of a Communist organization that broadly advocated revolution against the government, but insisted she had never personally called for or supported violence (Whitney v. California 1927).

The tide began to turn with Stromberg v. California (1931), where the Court struck down a state law banning the display of red flags, and notably incorporated the right to free speech against the states for the first time. The Court found that a “sign, symbol, or emblem” like a flag was protected speech under the First Amendment, and further wrote that free speech is a central component of the liberty protected by the Constitution: “It has been determined that the conception of liberty … embraces the right of free speech” (Stromberg v. California 1931, 283). The Court subsequently relied on that right to free speech to offer a passionate defense of the “opportunity for free political discussion,” which it called “essential to the security of the Republic” (Stromberg v. California 1931, 283). Still, it took decades for the overly permissive “clear and present danger” test for limits on free speech to be effectively superseded by a more protective standard of “imminent lawless action,” which the Court invoked in the 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohio. Explicitly overturning Whitney, the Court wrote that Ohio’s criminal syndicalism statute punishes “mere advocacy” (which can be translated as political expression), and thus is unconstitutional based on the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press (Brandenburg v. Ohio 1969, 395).

Apart from national security/law and order, the predominant justification for government attempts to restrict speech and the press has tended to be some form of offense or social disruption caused by the expression. The Court invoked something like the freedom of expression when it ruled for a plaintiff arrested for wearing a jacket with the words “fuck the draft” in Cohen v. California (1971), finding that California could not exercise a “governmental power to force persons who wish to ventilate their dissident views into avoiding particular forms of expression,” and justified this statement under the First Amendment right to free speech (Cohen v. California 1971, 403). In Miller v. California (1973), the Court largely overturned obscenity laws restricting printed material (which had famously ensnared classics like Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Tropic of Cancer due to sexual content), similarly deriving a wide-ranging right to express one’s views in writing from the First Amendment: “in the area of freedom of speech and press the courts must always remain sensitive to any infringement on genuinely serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific expression” (Miller v. California 1973, 413).

Freedom of assembly, as provided for in the First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, is another supportive right for freedom of expression. This right was notably litigated before the Supreme Court in the 1937 case De Jonge v. Oregon, in which the Court upheld the plaintiff’s right to speak at a peaceful meeting of the Communist Party (and incorporated this right to the states for the first time). In its ruling, the Court defended the importance of “free assembly in order to maintain the opportunity for free political discussion, to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes, if desired, may be obtained by peaceful means” (De Jonge v. Oregon 1937, 299). Of this opportunity the Court said, “therein lies the security of the Republic, the very foundation of constitutional government” (De Jonge v. Oregon 1937, 299).

The final right undergirding the freedom of expression is freedom of religion. Multiple rulings have found that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment imposes a high standard for restrictions on religious acts. For example, in Sherbert v. Verner (1963), the Court ruled in favor of a plaintiff who was denied unemployment benefits after losing her job for refusing to work on Saturdays on account of her Seventh-Day Adventist faith. The Court’s opinion indicated that a right to expression stems from the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion: “the imposition of such a condition upon even a gratuitous benefit inevitably deterred or discouraged the exercise of First Amendment rights of expression;” therefore, to “condition the availability of benefits upon this appellant's willingness to violate a cardinal principle of her religious faith” is impermissible because it “effectively penalizes the free exercise of her constitutional liberties” (Sherbert v. Verner 1963, 374). Subsequent rulings would similarly protect religious life choices and behaviors on the grounds of a Free Exercise Clause right to religious expression, such as Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), where the Court found that Wisconsin could not require parents to send their children to school past eighth grade when it was contrary to their Amish beliefs (Wisconsin v. Yoder 1972). Likewise in Church of the Lukumi Babulu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah (1993), the Court overturned a city ordinance targeting ritual animal sacrifice by practitioners of the Caribbean religion Santeria (Church of the Lukumi Babulu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah 1993).

In Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo (2020), concerning COVID-19 capacity restrictions on houses of worship, the Court found that even a temporary abridgement of the ability to attend religious services constitutes an “irreparable harm” to free exercise rights, and thus must meet the highest level of judicial scrutiny (Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo 2020, 5). Most recently, the Court made clear that the Free Exercise Clause protects religious expression in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022), where it ruled in favor of a high school football coach’s practice of praying on the field after games: “The Clause protects not only the right to harbor religious beliefs inwardly and secretly. It does perhaps its most important work by protecting the ability of those who hold religious beliefs of all kinds to live out their faiths in daily life through ‘the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts’” (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District 2022, 12).

While a clearly delineated freedom of expression is relatively recent, these examples show how it has been identified decades and centuries prior, in a wide variety of situations. The rights of freedom of speech and the press, assembly, and religion have all been highlighted as essential to free expression. These rights are therefore crucial not just for themselves, but because of the right to expression that grows out of them, that being the groundwork without which any definition of a free society cannot exist.


Abrams v. United States, 250 U.S. 616 (1919), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/250/616/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/395/444/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/508/520/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/403/15/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

De Jonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353 (1937), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/299/353/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/ccpr.pdf

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 597 U.S. ___ (2022), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/597/21-418/#:~:text=Justia%20Summary&text=The%20Constitution%20neither%20mandates%20nor,it%20allows%20comparable%20secular%20speech (accessed June 9, 2023)

Mill, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty. Kitchener, Ontario, Canada: Batoche Books Limited, https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/mill/liberty.pdf

Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/413/15/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

Milton, John. 1644. Areopagitica. Courtesy of the Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund, Inc., 2006, http://files.libertyfund.org/files/103/1224_Bk.pdf

Palko v. Connecticut, 302 U.S. 319 (1937), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/302/319/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

Read, James. 2009. “James Madison.” The First Amendment Encyclopedia, Free Speech Center, Middle Tennessee State University, https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1220/james-madison#:~:text=%22The%20people%20shall%20not%20be,of%20liberty%2C%20shall%20be%20inviolable

Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, 592 U.S. ___ (2020), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/592/20a87/#:~:text=Justia%20Summary&text=In%20challenges%20under%20the%20Free,requirement%20of%20neutrality%20to%20religion (accessed June 9, 2023)

Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/249/47/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/374/398/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

Stromberg v. California, 283 U.S. 359 (1931), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/283/359/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, United Nations, https://www.un.org/sites/un2.un.org/files/2021/03/udhr.pdf

Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357 (1927), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/274/357/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972), Justia, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/406/205/ (accessed June 9, 2023)

How does federalism change, if at all, the exercise or application of this right? What examples of this can one point to? 🖉 edit

The principles of federalism play an interesting role in the manner in which the right to freedom of expression is exercised. Historically, the founding fathers were divided on whether there should even be a bill of rights; the Constitutional Convention of 1787 did not include an explication of rights in the writing of the Constitution (Hail, 2020). The Bill of Rights was written as an afterthought, and as political scientist James Burnham observed, “ ‘These rights, in short, are limits, not powers’ (p. 87). Thus the constitutional theory of the founders was premised upon limitations to the powers of the federal government as reflected in the Bill of Rights” (Hail, 2020). Eventually, with the growth of the Union over the next 200 years, state constitutions started to include explications of the protected rights within their states, and as a result, some states are more protective over individual rights than the federal government itself: “For example, at the national level the right to privacy is derived from implications in the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and 14th Amendments. By contrast, half the states have enumerated constitutionally or by statute an explicit, and typically broader, right to privacy. Federalism gives the states latitude to experiment with policy areas under the First Amendment that it does not give to the national government, even though the latter retains an important role.” (Hail, 2020).

Federalism scholar Daniel J. Elazar observed that the states participate in policy experimentation and also provide more legal protection in addressing the unique and specific local/regional needs (Hail, 2020). However, in terms of actual exercise of the freedom of expression in particular, and related conflicting law between that of state and federal, “Federal speech laws survive more than half the time, state laws survive only a quarter of the time, and local laws almost always fail. This free speech federalism is likely attributable to some combination of federal courts deferring to federal lawmakers and the relative poor quality of law- making at the lower levels of government.” (Winkler 187, 2009).

The federal government holds more power regarding cases involving freedom of expression, often bending both federal and state law to its will, oftentimes going out of its way to justify federal laws while heavily scrutinizing already narrow state laws. In the 1999 case of United States v. McCorkle, a federal court declined to identify the federal government’s reasoning for compelling secrecy regarding an order sealing transcripts of in camera proceedings sought by a newspaper. Another court deemed that the newspaper who was seeking access to the transcripts had failed at its job to offer effective alternatives to complete closure, “yet, under strict scrutiny the burden of showing no less-restrictive alternatives belongs to the government, not the challenger. Moreover, the newspaper had no information about what the subject of the bench conferences was and thus could not reasonably be expected to offer suitable alternatives to closure” (Winkler 172, 2009). This case saw federal right-of-access restrictions upheld solely because courts supposedly did not follow the traditional requirements of the strict scrutiny standard.

Another case, contrastingly, shows the federal courts doing everything they could to invalidate the state restrictions. In the 1993 case of Lind v. Grimmer, a federal court “invalidated the application of a state law denying media access to pending complaints filed with the state campaign-finance spending commission. The court reasoned that the government interest in encouraging people to run for office was not protected by the restriction because complainants and others remained free to air their charges informally to the public. Yet, the same could be said about any restriction on the right of access” (Winkler 172-173, 2009).

Since the 1965 case of Bond v. Floyd, legislators, like any other citizen, are protected under the free expression embodied in the First Amendment. After being elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, Julian Bond, who was an African-American, was refused his seat due to anti-Vietnam war statements he made. Some House members challenged that his statements aided the US’s enemies and violated his mandatory oath to support the Constitution and therefore, he was not permitted to a seat in the House (Hudson Jr., 2009). The Court ruled in favor of Bond due to his fundamental rights to freedom of expression and speech because: “Free expression in the legislature not only serves the deliberative process and allows voters to choose their representatives according to their expressed beliefs and opinions, it also reinforces the constitutional safeguards of federalism and the separation of powers. As an expressive act that registers the will, preference, and opinion of a legislator, voting performs a unique communicative function. It expresses loyalty or dissension, agreement or abstention. It can also inform voters of a legislator's position on matters of public concern. Not only is legislative voting expressive, it is also representative and political, and therefore critical to the proper functioning of participatory democracy” (Scherr 257, 1991).

From the provided evidence, federalism can serve to protect the right to freedom of expression, but oftentimes, it allows for the federal government to somewhat bully state courts into the decisions that best suit them at the time.


Federalism, Michael W. Hail, The First Amendment Encyclopedia, Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro.

Freedom and Federalism: The First Amendment’s Protection of Legislative Voting, Steven N. Scherr, 257, The Yale Law Journal, 1991 New Haven.

Hudson: https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1597/free-speech-during-wartime#:~:text=Freedo

Free Speech Federalism, Adam Winkler, 172-173, 187, Michigan Law Review, 2009 Ann Arbor.

What specific examples of hierarchies, manifestos, constitutions, or prioritized descriptions of rights cite this right’s high status? Low status? No status at all? 🖉 edit

In 1919, Justice Holmes, in his dissent regarding the case of Abrams v. United States which saw the arrest of Russian immigrants convicted for handing out anti-war leaflets in New York City, stated that “the right to freedom of expression is at the very foundation of our constitutional theory. The expression of competing ideas in the marketplace of ideas is the best means of discovering the truth.” (Civic 119, 1997). Holmes advocated that the truth is at the “foundation of pursuit of the ultimate good, and pursuit of the ultimate good is the theoretical framework of the Constitution. Therefore, through free expression and the search for the truth, the ‘purpose’ of American liberty and democracy is realized” (Civic 120, 1997).

Almost 20 years later, Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo wrote in the majority opinion of the 1937 case of Palko v. Connecticut (which questioned whether Palko’s second conviction of a crime violated the Fifth Amendment’s protection against double jeopardy) the first explicit hierarchal ordering of human rights (Pacelle Jr.). The verdict of this case caused to Cardozo write that “some Bill of Rights guarantees--such as freedom of thought and speech--are fundamental, and that the Fourteenth Amendment's due process clause absorbed these fundamental rights and applied them to the states. Protection against double jeopardy was not a fundamental right” (Oyez 2020). Cardozo argued further that certain fundamental rights, including the rights to freedom of speech, religion, and press were the “very essence of a scheme of ordered liberty”(Pacelle Jr., 2020). The next year, Justice Harlan Fiske Stone argued in Footnote 4 of the majority opinion in United States v. Carolene Products that the Court should allow civil and individual rights to occupy a “preferred position” when dealing with economic disputes that also affect fundamental rights (Pacelle Jr., 2020).

Ultimately, from these Supreme Court rulings, one can gather that freedom of expression is a fundamental right that “also underpins most other rights and allows them to flourish. The right to speak your mind freely on important issues in society, access information and hold the powers that be to account, plays a vital role in the healthy development process of any society” (Index on Censorship, 2013). As Amartya Sen writes in his book “Development as Freedom,” access to the freedom of expression is a necessity in the development process of a society and is a developmental goal of its own. The freedom is “both the primary end and the principal means of development” (Index on Censorship, 2013).


Preferred Position Doctrine, Richard L. Pacelle Jr., The First Amendment Encyclopedia, Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro.

The Right to Freedom of Expression as the Principal Component of the Preservation of Personal Dignity: An Argument for International Protection Within All Nations and Across Borders, Mélanne Andromecca Civic, 118-120, 134, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, 1997 Philadelphia.

Why is access to freedom of expression important?, Index on Censorship, 2013 United Kingdom: https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2013/03/why-is-access-to-freedom-of-expression-important/#:~:text=Freedom%20of%20expression%20is%20a,development%20process%20of%20any%20society.

Is there a perception that this right is above or higher than other fundamental rights, or in general, that it has a particular place in a hierarchy of rights? 🖉 edit

The freedom of expression is essential to the development and upholding of an individual’s inherent sense of self and personal dignity, and as a result, the protection of this right is necessary to the protection of society as a whole (Civic 118-119, 1997). After the court ruling of Whitney v. California, which deemed that the freedom of expression is not an absolute right, Justice Brandeis “declared free expression to be the means to attain the truth, and the truth to be at the foundation of liberty and happiness” (Civic 120, 1997).The fundamental nature of this right is protected in the Preambles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, and both assert human dignity as the foundation for all other rights protected in the documents, further asserting that human dignity is the foundation of all human rights (Civic 134, 1997). A survey carried out by FindLaw in 2015 found that of the 1,000 American adults asked to participate, 30% believed their freedom of speech to be the right of upmost importance from the Bill of Rights. Although all given rights are important, and it can be dangerous to start ranking rights’ power and relevance, Stephanie Rahlfs, attorney-editor with FindLaw.com states “it's interesting to note that the Founding Fathers placed freedom of speech into the First Amendment as a cornerstone of the Bill of Rights” (FindLaw, 2015). As time has passed, The Supreme Court has even professed this freedom to be “the matrix, the indispensable condition of nearly every other form of freedom;” for example, this right is what allows for the fundamental right to vote, the right which powers democracy, to be constitutionally protected (ACLU 2020). Although the right to freedom of expression falls under a small category of rights with “preferred position,” (a concept which was inspired by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s opinion in the 1919 case of Schenck v. United States, which ultimately recognized the hierarchal primacy of the First Amendment and the rights protected under it), the right has been tested many times throughout American history (Pacelle Jr.). For example, during times of compromised national security such as WWI, First Amendment rights have been significantly compromised, with some citizens having been censored, fined, and jailed: “It was during WWI -- hardly ancient history -- that a person could be jailed just for giving out anti-war leaflets” (ACLU, 2020). From this example, we see that although freedom of expression ranks high on the list of protected rights, it does not outweigh the importance of the common good or the need for general societal peace.


Americans Say Freedom of Speech is the Most Important Constitutional Right, According to FindLaw.com Survey for Law Day, May 1, PR Newswire Association LLC, 2015 New York.

Freedom of Expression, American Civil Liberties Union, 2020 New York.

The Right to Freedom of Expression as the Principal Component of the Preservation of Personal Dignity: An Argument for International Protection Within All Nations and Across Borders, Mélanne Andromecca Civic, 118-120, 134, University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, 1997 Philadelphia.

Are there other specific fundamental rights that tend to conflict with this right? Can you identify specific examples of this? 🖉 edit

Rights to privacy may in some cases conflict with the right to free expression. For instance, according to Duke University Law Professor George Christie, there are cases in Europe in which speech pertaining to information not already known by the public can be successfully argued to be a violation of privacy, and thus illegal (Christie). However, Christie argues that this argument is more difficult to make in the United States, as freedom of expression is the “preferred value” over privacy in American jurisprudence. This preferred value is exhibited in even the most extreme cases, such as Snyder v. Phelps, where the court upheld the rights of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest adjacent to the funeral of a Marine who had been killed in Iraq (Christie).

As explained by Christie, while the Snyder v. Phelps case did strongly affirm the right to free speech, an additional conflicting right emerged from Justice Alito’s dissent. Alito asserted that the protests could violate the common law tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress, as the disturbing language of the church protests may have caused the plaintiff severe emotional distress. Through this, Alito affirms that individuals have a legal right to not be afflicted by speech that results in emotional distress, contradicting the right to free expression.

Additionally, rights to public safety may contradict rights to free expression. This is largely demonstrated by international law, which upholds restrictions on free speech when they are intended to prevent defamation, protect national security, and uphold public health (Govindu). If speech comes into conflict with any of these areas, it is generally accepted that it can be curtailed by the government. In this way, the rights of others to public safety can overpower the right to individual expression.

In the United States, the Schenck v. United States and subsequent Brandenburg v. Ohio rulings outline the ways in which free speech can be limited in the name of public safety. In Schenck, the court upheld that speech was not constitutionally protected if it will “create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent” (Cornell Law School). The guidelines for restricting speech were then further clarified in Brandenburg, which asserted that speech could be prohibited if it was “"directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Exhibited by these two cases, the public has a right to be protected from dangerous speech. Therefore, through the protection of public safety, the right to free expression is contradicted.


Christie, George. "Private: The Conflict between Freedom of Speech and Other Rights and Values." ACS Expert Forum (2011). https://www.acslaw.org/?post_type=acsblog&p=7987

"Freedom of Speech: Historical Background." Cornell Law School. Legal Information Institute. https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution-conan/amendment-1/freedom-of-speech-historical-background

Govindu, V. “CONTRADICTIONS IN FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND EXPRESSION.” The Indian Journal of Political Science 72, no. 3 (2011): 641–50.