Free speech is a protected right, guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and protected by many state and Federal laws. It typically protects an individual’s right to engage in even distasteful rhetoric — racist or sexist comments or outraged and outrageous comments about public policy. Commercial forms of speech are regulated. So is speech directed towards some subjects, such as child pornography or speech inciting an imminent threat. The First Amendment has protected the right to say some pretty awful things over the years, and we generally see it as a cornerstone of democracy. But a new University of Kansas study suggests that free speech has become a convenient justification for prejudice, as much, if not more, than a deeply-held principle.
“We think of principles as ideas we use to guide behavior in our everyday lives. Our data show something different — that we tend to make up our mind on something based on our attitudes — in this case, racial attitudes — and then decide that the principle is relevant or irrelevant. People do whatever best fits their pre-existing attitudes,” Mark H. White, one of the authors, said in a statement. White and co-author, psychology professor, Christian Crandall, recruited over 1600 people using the Amazon Mechanical Turk service and asked them to respond to descriptions of news events. Participants' racial attitudes were scored using a common measure of prejudice.
The point is not that everyone who argues for free speech is prejudiced.
Participants also condemned the actor in a story who treated customers in a coffee shop to some choice snarky comments with no racial content, rather than relying on the principle of free speech to justify the person's right to speak their mind, suggesting that most of us understand hate speech when we hear it. Ultimately, the researchers conclude the value of free speech appears “for the prejudiced person when it suits their needs but is absent when it does not.”
Ultimately, the researchers conclude the value of free speech appears “for the prejudiced person when it suits their needs but is absent when it does not.”