Insulting religions and races; should it be allowed?

By Razib Khan | August 16, 2008 10:29 pm

In the United States we have the free speech built into the law, so it is somewhat a moot point. Of course, as evidenced by comments in many other Western countries the limits to speech are bounded by public consensus. So I decided to look at the GSS in terms of response to one question:

After I read each statement, please tell me if you strongly agree, aggee, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statement.
a. Under the First Amendment guarnateeing free speech, people should be allowed to express their own opinions even if they are harmful or offensive to members of other religious or racial groups.

Here is what I found….
1) Across politics there doesn’t seem to be a strong trend. Extreme liberals do tend to go bimodal where a large minority support speech restriction, but the N is small. Interestingly, moderates are the most open to speech restriction. Perhaps because moderates are the least like to need protection because they’re so inoffensive 😉
2) A very moderate trend while increasing intelligence and free speech absolutism. But far less than I’d expected.
3) A rather noticeable trend toward free speech absolutism from junior college on up in terms of education…but the N for junior college isn’t large. It seems actually the trend is weaker than I’d thought it would be here, the less educated aren’t that much more open to speech suppression!
4) Little difference across races.
5) Some differences across regions.
I checked a few other variables. There doesn’t seem to be much difference. I’m pretty surprised, and happily so! Someone else can check the regression or correlations, but where there are trends the N‘s are suspiciously small for those categories, so I’m skeptical that there will be many statistically significant differences. The tables are below the fold.


  • Mike Haubrich, FCD

    Was there a category that ranked respondents from strong atheist through strong fundamentalist religious? What was the source on this again, Razib?

  • razib

    go here:
    ETHSPKOK for row
    GOD for column
    there is a trend, but not monotonic so i’m suspicious.

  • Doug Alder

    You have such a strong inculcation from birth in the US to the concept of free speech that any other response would be surprising to me.

  • Mike Haubrich, FCD
  • jim

    I have distinct memories of playground fights as a kid that went like this:
    1st kid: [insults 2nd kid]
    2nd kid: Shut up!
    1st kid: It’s a free country, I can say whatever I want.
    I often wondered how unique to America that type of exchange was.

  • Alan Kellogg

    The first amendment guarantees what? No, it doesn’t. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States blocks the Congress of the United States of enacting any law which would bar free expression of those items covered by the First Amendment. It’s not a case of, “You may speak your mind.” but, “Congress can not deny you the right to speak your mind.”

  • tc

    Some revisionists tend to downplay the effect of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers etc but it seems to me this is one thing that would never have happened without them.

  • Matt Springer

    Alan, through the judicial doctrine of incorporation, the 14 amendment has been interpreted to mean that the 1st amendment applies to not just the federal government but also state and local governments.

  • razib

    i’m assuming alan knows that. just being pedantic 😉

  • JoJo

    There are restrictions on free speech. In the U.S. libel, lying under oath (perjury), threats, speech causing unnecessary alarm (yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded building when there is no fire), advocating treason, and even noise pollution are limitations on free speech. Other countries have other free speech restrictions, such as hate speech, Holocaust denial, and the UK’s “Encouragement of Terrorism.”
    However, free speech is not limited by a right not to be insulted.

  • Ethan

    I think that free speech insulting minorities is a good way to know who the assholes are in any crowd.
    Threatening them is something else.
    Of course, I’m probably influenced here by having been born and raised in the US.

  • John Emerson

    The geographical keys are impossible to be sure about, but it seems that the Midwest is the strongest free speech area. Resistance to the PATRIOT Act, etc, was also centered in the Midwest. Few people would guess that.
    Moderates and centrists have a falsely positive image. They are basically supporters of the status quo and might be highly authoritarian. They also are often thoughtless people who just don’t want to be bothered. At best the moderate opinion is like a wind sock telling you where the consensus probably is, but they aren’t exactly a source of wisdom, insight, or problem-solving.

  • Stephen Wells

    It bugs me that your question asks about “harmful and offensive” speech. I could only answer the question if those two are separated. Harmful speech, of the “lynch that goddam uppity nigger” variety, deserves legal restriction and sanction. Offensive speech, e.g. telling people that you think their most cherished beliefs are wrong and stupid, deserves protection, because we have to be able to disagree with each other.
    “Scientology is ridiculously stupid and anyone who believes in it should be mocked unmercifully” should be fine. “Those Scientologist cockroaches must all be wiped out” should not be.
    For your demographics- white, PhD, radical liberal, european.

  • Paul Murray

    Seems plain to me that the point of your fist amendment is in it’s being a meta-law: without free speech, no governemtn can be legitimate, because legitimacy is granted by the informrd consent of the people.
    Thus, free speech is a right to say whatever you like about *the government*, and that quite broadly: the officials of the government, elected and unelecte, in respect of whatever might have bearing on the execution of their official duties; the courts; and the legislature. Most particularly, any citizen must be free to express ther opinions of the laws, and to propose laws.
    Instead, you have a situation where Larry Flynt can use “free speech” to peddle smut; but criticise a court or heckle a politician and you’ll wind up behind bars.
    But that’s what comes of the idea that justice is all about textual analysis.

  • Kevin

    How do you define an insult. How do you differentiate from a legitimate criticism. If I refer to a religious person’s deity as their invisible sky friend, is that an insult or an honest difference of belief? For the fundamentalists, any criticism of their beliefs, their scriptures, or their god is a perceived insult so the effect of limiting effective speech is a limit on inquiry, on debate, and even a limit on questioning the legitimacy of a religions foundations or beliefs.
    “Those Scientologist cockroaches must all be wiped out” should not be.”
    Muslims preach death to infidels. Christians for centuries preached death to heretics. Both preach divine retribution against non-believers. Is preaching divine retribution any different than preaching earthly retribution? Who draws the lines and where are they drawn at?
    I believe that Actions can be criminal, thought and belief should never be.

  • Nemo

    I object to the conflation of race (an unalterable, inherited characteristic) with religion (a systematic error of thought which, although also usually inherited, can be overcome).
    But ultimately, yeah, I’m a freedom of speech absolutist.

  • Ron Hager

    I agree with Nemo, the two (religion & race) should not be comingled since they represent entirely different aspects of humans. Race is something that we can not alter and therefore must be protected from insults etc. On the other hand our religion is something that we humans alter frequently. Religion is an unnatural garb that we don and protecting it from insult would be akin to protecting “flatlanders” and cannibals from insult.

  • agnostic

    but it seems that the Midwest is the strongest free speech area. Resistance to the PATRIOT Act, etc, was also centered in the Midwest.
    Kinda like how people with the most annoying music favor few restrictions on what can come out of your car stereo.

  • toto

    I believe that Actions can be criminal, thought and belief should never be.
    The general outlook among European democracies is that some thoughts and beliefs, when given free rein, can spontaneously lead to criminal actions on a massive scale – and when that happens, it’s too late to do anything about it.
    This defiance goes a long way. The Greeks already wrote about the dangers of the “ugly beast” – the violent mob fired up by the populist orator.
    The trauma of WWII, and of the Fascist wave that preceded it, goes a long way to explain European reluctance towards the principle of unrestricted free speech (“We civilisations now know that we are mortal” – Paul Valery)

  • jaakkeli

    The trauma of WWII, and of the Fascist wave that preceded it, goes a long way to explain European reluctance towards the principle of unrestricted free speech
    It doesn’t. Germany already had such laws and they were central to the Nazi campaign. The Nazis filled Germany with posters and pamphlets asking why Germany needs laws against criticizing Jewish influence if Jewish influence is really innocent and meaningless, pointing out what a powerful man Hitler must be since he’s not allowed to speak in public and so on.
    Of course, once the Nazis were in power, they only needed to slightly modify the arguments to justify their version of repression. The real difference is simple: Americans are committed to freedom, Europeans are authoritarian, in fascism and anti-fascism, and that’s why Europeans always end up with more repressive, violent ideologies, whether fascist or anti-fascist. The increasing repressiveness of hate speech codes doesn’t mean that we’re steering to avoid repeating history, it means we’re repeating history.

  • The light side

    Ultimately, this entry begs the question, again, about … Islam. In doing so it proves its own point.
    One shouldn’t confuse things or entirely get them wrong. This is an example of doing both:
    “Muslims preach death to infidels. Christians for centuries preached death to heretics. Both preach divine retribution against non-believers.” — by Kevin
    The last statement is patently false. The first and second may or may not be true. Islam mandates violence against nonbelievers in its tradition (theology, doctrine and jurisprudence) and text and always has. Christianity does not and never has.

  • Coriolis

    Yeah “the light side” and the crusades never happened either, it’s all a conspiracy by the evil liberal/atheist/feminist masterminds. Oh and islamist too.
    I’m getting tired of this periodic discussion of “who’s more evil, islam or chirstianity???!?!!”. It’s a bit like arguing over whether fission (atomic) or fusion (hydrogen) bombs are more powerful. Yeah, hydrogen bombs are more powerful, technically, but either one in sufficient numbers can wipe out everything, so why distinguish? We don’t want either of them used.

  • The light side

    I didn’t bring up Islam and Christianity in the same sentence. Kevin did. I was addressing his guilt obligation to mention Christianity which is irrelevant and out of place. There is only one world religion that causes problems and clashes with equality, freedom, and other religions currently.
    Indeed, and if you know anything about the Crusades you’ll notice that half of the christian world was on the receiving end of political impositions after having asked for help from … the invading islamic empires. So your catch all terms are foolish.
    If you are going to say that any religion should be mentioned simultaneously with islam re: problems in the world I surely will let you live in that delusion, and leave the treatment alone, as you would be unwilling to see things as they are. It’s too bad that China, India, Thailand, Phillipines, etc. — countries having nothing to do with the West — know exactly what (who) the problem is.

  • Coriolis

    I don’t know what your point is. Being born in Sofia, about 300 miles away from Istanbul, I certainly know about the 4th crusade. How exactly is the fact that the crusaders indiscriminately targeted eastern orthodox christians along with muslims some type of mediating factor? By that logic since sunnis and shias are killing each other too instead of just christians they must be nice people too.
    The point is that religious fanatics kill people. Which particular religion it is is not quite irrelevant, but not a particularly important factor. Even buddhism (admittedly mixed with shinto) lead to kamikazi attacks, and that religion is pretty clear that you’re not supposed to do that.

  • The light side

    One of my lines was somewhat confusing and my fault. The major point is that there is no good religious argument to counter “extremism” in Islam. Quite simply put, what does Osama bin Laden do that is unIslamic or unfounded in the traditions and texts of the islamic prophet? Forgetting that Islam is a political system as well, you can make the argument that the catholics weren’t religiously motivated or justified by anything “Christian”. They were acting strictly political (and therefore these actions didn’t last). If I can reach you elsewhere, I will have the conversation certainly. Please direct me. Ultimately, the violence of Muhammad will rear its head even if it hides in times of weakness. That was his example and will always be unless they do not take his example seriously … at all. I’ve heard no one dare mention anything to that effect.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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