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Free speech is considered one of the essential values in the society. It protects the democratic process and ensures the diversity of thoughts and beliefs. Numerous people and groups have continuously fight for this precious right, like the UC Davis students who faced pepper spray to protest the chancellor’s wrongful behavior. Yet in recent decades, with the increasing cases of hate speech and free speech-related crime, many wonder if free speech needs some restrictions. In early February, the huge protest in UC Berkeley against Yiannopoulos, who was accused of racism and being misogynistic, caused huge damage to the public as the protesters started to act violently to stop Yiannopoulos’ speech. Both parties use the power of speech in the wrong way, and it is hard to judge which is morally worse. People started to question the value of free speech, as it brought unfairness and hurt instead of equality and justice to people.
In “Hate speech” and “There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing, Too,” Robin Lakoff and Stanley Fish discuss how it’s necessary to have a restriction on free speech to so that the power of speech can be beneficial to the society.
When talking about free speech, people generally believe that it is powerful and unlimited. Yet, Lakoff states that giving speech too much freedom is devaluing the power of language. Lakoff believes that, in the real world, free speech has never been absolute, and this existing natural limitation is a recognition of the power of language inside the definition of free speech. Providing information about birth control and protesting war are two typical examples. People unconsciously reject these two ideas as they are not part of acceptable free speech. Only after these two forms of speech became part of the right to free speech, with enormous amounts of struggle, are they as widely heard and accepted, showing their power as speech.
So, what kind of power does language have? Lakoff raises J.K. Austin’s concept that language has the same power as action. Even though this concept isn’t completely true, as words represent thought as well, in some ways, words have been already ruled as equivalent to actions. Courts consider threats, perjury, and other behaviors as criminal actions. After Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the court established the idea that any word that breaks the peace is a “fighting word,” which should be punished. Language has the power to cause psychological effects, which might be hard to evaluate, but it is impossible to deny the existence of those effects. These indirect changes will eventually lead to actual physical change in the world.
Comparing the above two arguments, Lakoff states that putting no limitations on language is contradictory to protecting the First Amendment. The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the value of speech. People who believe that it is unnecessary to put limitations on free speech do not consider speech to have negative impacts on people. However, this denial of the world-changing power of speech makes the beneficial power of speech less strong as well. The more freedom that is given to speech, or the more denial of the world-changing power that speech has, the less people will recognize and prove the power of language.
Like Lakoff’s paper, Fish explains that words will be meaningless if no restrictions are put on them. Yet Fish believes that free speech itself is meaningless.
Even though the two authors have different explanations, they both believe that the value of speech can only be shown with limitations. Considering current society, only with restrictions on speech can someone’s words can be heard and valued. Let’s look back to the incident at Berkeley. Students don’t respect Yiannopoulos not only because of what he believes but also the way he expresses his ideas. If he were a regular conservative speaker, not a person who was banned from Twitter, he might not receive such outrage. His words are powerful, but his words have only brought society huge negative effects as he doesn’t put any restrictions on the words he says.
Some may argue that it’s unnecessary to put limits on free speech, as the increasing accidents related to free speech, such as hate speech, are a reflection of people’s increasing awareness of the power of free speech. However, without limitations on free speech, the power of words won’t be strong enough to eliminate these accidents. People would only see the negative power that words like hate speech have if proper speech are given higher status than these hateful words.
For the well-being of society, people need the right of free speech, and they need speech that has power even more. There is no doubt that putting restrictions on free speech enhances its power. However, language and its effects are full of uncertainty. An African American and a Caucasian both called their friend “nigger.” The former might be considered fine, yet the latter must be considered racism. It would be a great challenge for people to determine and practice regulations on free speech. For the future, in order to utilize the benefit of free speech, it is important the determine proper regulations.