Civil Rights Laws and Freedom of Speech

Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties edited by Paul Finkelman (Routledge 2006, p. 302-305).

5 Pages Posted: 18 Jul 2020 Last revised: 23 Mar 2023

Date Written: 2006


The goal of civil rights legislation in the United States has been to ensure freedom from invidious or unjustified discrimination. Free speech has a long and positive association with the cause of civil rights, dating back to the movement for the abolition of slavery before the American Civil War. With advocacy of civil rights - and protest against discrimination - under threat at various times and places in the past, civil rights and free speech became intertwined as causes: for much of the twentieth century, support for the one seemed easily interchangeable with support for the other.

Yet free speech can also mean the expression of ideas or attitudes or facts that are at odds with civil rights, or with the goals or feelings of those who consider themselves advocates of civil rights. Hence free speech, and even freedom of thought, can apparently or actually conflict with civil rights, or with causes that assume the mantle of civil rights. There has been growing pressure against freedom of speech, freedom of debate, and freedom of inquiry in recent years, on campus and off: and causes associated with civil rights are typically invoked to justify restriction or suppression.

Civil rights laws, too, can impose restriction on free expression. This encyclopedia article reviews a variety of legal situations in which civil rights laws or judgments may conflict – perhaps justifiably in some cases - with free speech. The legal issues where conflict can arise include equal-employment law, including restrictions on workplace harassment; campus speech codes; laws seeking to punish hate crimes or hate speech; restrictions on freedom of association; and efforts on feminist grounds to restrict or prohibit pornography.

Keywords: Freedom Of Speech, Civil Rights, Equal Employment, Speech Codes, Hate Speech, Harrassment, Pornography

Suggested Citation

Schwarzschild, Maimon, Civil Rights Laws and Freedom of Speech (2006). Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties edited by Paul Finkelman (Routledge 2006, p. 302-305)., Available at SSRN:

Maimon Schwarzschild (Contact Author)

University of San Diego School of Law ( email )

5998 Alcala Park
San Diego, CA 92110-2492
United States
619-260-2343 (Phone)
619-260-4791 (Fax)

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