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Free Speech in America?
Chat With ABCNEWS Correspondent John Stossel

March 23 In his special report, You Can’t Say That! What’s Happening to Free Speech, John Stossel observes that over the past few decades a dangerous new commandment has appeared in America: “Thou shalt not hurt others with words.”

    Increasingly, he says, people in power have come to believe it’s their job to stop what they consider dangerous or hateful speech.
     However, Stossel points out that free speech is integral to liberty and progress in America and that the answer to hateful speech is more speech rather than restrictive laws. Following the broadcast, John Stossel joined us in an online chat.
Moderator at 11:00 p.m. ET
Welcome John Stossel. Let's begin.
rayanne says:
Aren't Americans naturally rebellious and therefore reject the notion of limited speech?
John Stossel
200 years ago, yes.Now it seems many of us are willing to give up our freedom, bit by bit.
sigma says:
Would the Congress ever dare to take back or amend this right?
John Stossel
I doubt Congress would repeal the First Amendment. But ever more intrusive laws, like sexual harassment law begin to accomplish the same thing.
enigma says:
Are media outlets like Bloomberg feeling the need to be careful?
John Stossel
Yes. Witness a billionaire, scared of lawsuits, willing to censor speech in a hundred countries.
miramichi says:
In your opinion, what's the relationship between politeness and free speech? How can we find a balance between making each other reasonably comfortable while asserting our own rights?
John Stossel
Politeness and etiquette is a far better regulator of discourse than law. I wish we would use more etiquette, and less law.
kristi says:
Hi, John. People seem to misunderstand the very nature of the First Amendment, which protects us from efforts BY THE GOVERNMENT to restrict our speech. Isn't it true that private organizations (say, private universities) are perfectly within their rights to determine what kind of speech is acceptable on campus?
John Stossel
That's a good point, I'm glad you brought that up. It is very different when a private organization censors. Any business, or private university, or major league baseball, or a cult, can set whatever speech rules it wants.

We may even learn from these mini-utopias how better to get along with each other. This is not a threat, because we can always join other cults, or universities, or businesses.

Yes, people who think repressive political correctness curtails our freedoms speak up about it!

Nancy says:
When someone wants to use foul language and say they have a right to do so, then what happened to my right of not wanting to hear it?
John Stossel
You can leave, but you don't have a right not to hear it. You have a right not to be physically assaulted. PHYSICALLY assaulted.
badboy says:
What can we do to stop the government from censoring freedom of speech?
John Stossel
Elect people who value liberty.
daddy2tyler says:
I just watched the bit about the teachers being afraid of the student's website. Afraid of the word, 'shunned'. They were afraid that some student may not know what the word means, aren't they teachers? Can't they teach what shunned means?
John Stossel
I don't understand those teachers myself.
Brian asks:
John, why did you open with a piece about Giuliani?
John Stossel
I thought it went to the heart of the matter. I live in New York, I like what Giuliani has done. I like it that I can walk to work and am less likely to be verbally assaulted by panhandlers.

The streets feel safer for me and my kids. On the other hand, I think Robert Lederman made a good point that many of the actions Giuliani has repressed are free speech, and I find that chilling. So, I'm conflicted about all that, and I thought it was a good place to start.

cab says:
Are these people really offended or just out to get free money from law suits?
John Stossel
Maybe both.
Rhiannon says:
Am I the last generation to grow up believing in Voltaire's "I may disagree with what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it?" What happened??
John Stossel
I hope not.
Lovetoplay says:
Have restrictions on free speech hurt us as a country?
John Stossel
I think they are beginning to hurt us. Certainly America is nowhere near in as much trouble as Iran, where those who speak against the government are sentenced to death. But when even universities censor speech, liberal inquiry and the open debate are chilled. That will hurt the country.
owlwngs says:
After recent events in New York when the local government tried to suppress artistic expression unsuccessfully, why should we be concerned about free speech? Won't it survive?
John Stossel
I hope free speech will survive. I assume the action you are referring to is Giuliani attempting to cut the funds for the museum that sponsored an exhibit found offensive. I do NOT equate cutting off government subsidies with government censorship. If people want to create provocative art, I think they should expect to pay for it themselves.
Nick says:
So, should I feel offended when the next set of commercials come on the TV and some company is playing on my sexuality to sell me a product?
John Stossel
It's your right to be offended. But please don't tell me that I must be offended too. And the company must be punished. Just turn off the TV.
Dave475 says:
At the risk of sounding racist, do you think this a product of our multicultural society?
John Stossel
I think it's more a product of the political correctness movement, in the repression of speech at universities, and in the sexual harassment speech codes, is a product of the totalitarian left. Censorship used to come from the right wing, now it comes from the left.
Bubba says:
John, when talking to those people did you ever get so frustrated that you want to walk away and quit talking to them?
John Stossel
I assume you mean the sanctimonious Columbia University students. Yes, sometimes I thought my head was going to explode.
RHL_ says:
John McCain wants to make certain political opinion ads illegal. Your opinion?
John Stossel
I assume you are referring to campaign finance reform. Which is something much beloved to the mainstream press. I agree that McCain's reforms would result in legitimate political speech, such as guides from the Sierra Club, and religious groups and seniors groups being censored.

Many of the reform proposals would lead insider politicians and those of us in the media as the only people who are permitted to engage in the political debate.

In politics, money IS speech. I think it would be better to let anybody spend money to advocate any political idea as long as it was disclosed where the money came from. Then voters can decide whether politicians are being bought or not.

JVStrong says:
What do you think should be done to make people less sensitive to "offensive" words?
John Stossel
I don't know. I thought doing a report on it on television might help.
MarkB says:
Any comments on how media outlets now being in the hands of fewer people will have an effect on free speech. For example your company is part of several other media outlets. Doesn't that have an effect on free speech?
John Stossel
There is much fear about that voiced in journalism magazines. I think most of us journalists are so prickly that we go out of our way not to pull punches when it comes to reporting on our bosses. I think there are so many new media outlets now, that this won't be a problem.

Nevertheless, you oughta keep an eye on us, and humiliate us if we slant reporting to favor our employers.

Erik says:
What about the Supreme Court's decision that some speech is "fighting words." Do you think that ruling was a mistake?
John Stossel
No. You have to draw lines somewhere.
LarryAp says:
What about freedom of commercial speech. Do you know much about it?
John Stossel
We are always more willing to censor commercial speech. But news about products and services is often more valuable, or as valuable, as political information. It's a dangerous precedent to censor commercial speech too.
MicheleMD says
: Oprah won her fight against the Beef group because of freedom of speech. Don't public figures have more of a responsibility to guard their tongues because of the influence they wield?
John Stossel
Yes, I think public figures have more responsibility. On the other hand, we are better regulated by free markets than by lawsuits. If Oprah or I am irresponsible, our audience will flee us, and we will lose our reputations and our jobs. On the other hand, the lawsuit is probably the biggest threat to speech today.

You say Oprah won, and she did in court, but it cost her weeks of time, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Under the American legal system, when you win, you lose.

Today more reporters censor themselves for fear of lawsuits than out of fear of the corporate conglomerates for whom they work. It means rich people who are litigious and lawyer-bullies get away with censoring information all the time.

Thank you so much for this informative chat! Do you have any parting thoughts for us?
John Stossel
As Jonathan Rauch says in his excellent book, which is titled "Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought" in America, in France, in Austria, in Australia and elsewhere, the old principle of the inquisition is being revived. People who hold wrong and hurtful opinions should be punished for the good of society.

If they cannot be put in jail, then they should lose their jobs, be subjected to campaigns of vilification, be made to apologize, be pressed to recant.If government cannot do the punishing, then private institutions and pressure groups should do it.I think this is a dangerous idea, and a threat to free thought.

John Stossel, thank you for joining us tonight, and thanks to all those who submitted questions. Did you miss one of our chats? Click here to read recent chats on

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