American Exceptionalism and Its Limits

Erik Bleich

in The Freedom to Be Racist?

Published in print September 2011 | ISBN: 9780199739684
Published online September 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199914579 | DOI:
American Exceptionalism and Its Limits

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To understand how the United States has balanced protecting free speech and curbing harmful speech, this chapter takes the long view. In the first half of the twentieth century, states had the latitude to pass and enforce laws that restricted wide varieties of speech on almost any grounds. Starting in the 1920s and 1930s, however, the Supreme Court began to rein in these provisions. After initial steps to protect controversial speech, decisions from the 1940s and 1950s created the potential to move in a more speech-restrictive, European direction. It was only rulings handed down during the 1960s and 1970s that strictly limited states’ and municipalities’ rights to curb racist speech and that entrenched America's extensive protections for freedom of expression. This outcome amounts to the most significant exception to the overarching trend in liberal democracies toward limiting the freedom to be racist. Even so, there are still limits on racist expression in the United States, and identifying them tempers the misconception that the United States permits racist speech under any and all circumstances.

Keywords: freedom of speech; United States; Supreme Court; Skokie; workplace harassment; cross burning

Chapter.  9385 words. 

Subjects: Comparative Politics

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