Posted on April 22, 2015

Love Liberty? Allow Yourself to Be Offended

Walter Williams, WND, April 21, 2015

What’s the true test of one’s commitment to free speech? It does not come when he permits people to be free to say or publish ideas with which he agrees. Not by a long shot. The true test of one’s commitment to free speech comes when he permits others to say and publish ideas he deems offensive.

In March, a video surfaced of a racist chant by Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers at the University of Oklahoma, a public university. It has brought widespread condemnation and the fraternity’s suspension. Two fraternity students have been expelled. The University of Oklahoma’s president, David Boren, said, “To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you: You are disgraceful.”

The Western world was shocked and outraged by another speech issue that led to the murder of 12 people at the offices of French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Islamists were retaliating for what they considered the newspaper’s vulgar portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad, an insult to millions of Muslims.

What’s the difference between the actions of the University of Oklahoma administrators and the actions of the Islamist murderers in Paris? Both found the speech in question offensive. Both took actions against the people involved in that speech. So what’s the difference? It’s a matter of degree, but not kind. Both were unwilling to tolerate speech they didn’t like. Of course, the difference in responses is by no means trivial–one being expulsion and the other murder.

The principle that applies to one’s commitment to free speech also applies to one’s commitment to freedom of association. The true test of one’s commitment to freedom of association does not come when he permits people to associate in ways he deems acceptable. The true test comes when he permits people to associate–or not to associate–in ways he deems offensive.


Permitting discriminatory practices in publicly owned facilities–such as libraries, parks and beaches–should not be permitted. That is because they are publicly financed by taxpayers and everyone should have a right to equal access. Denying freedom of association in private clubs, private businesses and private schools violates a human right.


Liberty requires bravery. To truly support free speech, one has to accept that some people will say and publish things he finds deeply offensive. Similarly, to be for freedom of association, one has to accept that some people will associate in ways that he finds deeply offensive, such as associating or not associating on the basis of race, sex or religion.