Tolerating Extreme Speech

Free Speech (working title for book)

11 Pages Posted: 11 Jun 2020

See all articles by Nick Cowen

Nick Cowen

School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln

Date Written: May 17, 2020


How should free societies deal with people who profess support for the use of unlawful violence to achieve political ends? I believe that what tends to be called extreme speech should not be subject to any additional legal restrictions beyond the ordinary legal constraints on criminal activity. Police and lawmakers should focus on preventing active conspiracies to commit violence against persons and property rather than identifying extreme speech for prosecution.

My argument is as follows. Violent rhetoric is a common part of political discourse. ‘Lawful’ violence itself is a core feature of the way all states maintain social order. People disagree a great deal about how violence may legitimately be used and for what ends. So advocating for the use of violence as a matter of policy or morality, rather than against specific individuals, cannot plausibly be considered extreme. It is hard to distinguish extreme political positions from mainstream political positions expressed in slightly different terms or from actors in different social positions. Any legal restrictions would be unevenly, and likely arbitrarily, enforced.

Keywords: Free speech, freedom of expression, hate speech, extremism, tolerance, liberalism, John Stuart Mill, violence, far right politics, islamism, karl popper

Suggested Citation

Cowen, Nick, Tolerating Extreme Speech (May 17, 2020). Free Speech (working title for book), Available at SSRN: or

Nick Cowen (Contact Author)

School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Lincoln ( email )

Lincoln LN2
United Kingdom

HOME PAGE: http://

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