Two Examples of Freedom of Speech in Crisis

A few weeks ago, Carrie Prejean (aka Miss California) got some heat mainly from two things.  The first is seen below:

Many people got offended by this.  At the same time, Prejean also posed in topless pics before she became Miss California.  You can see them here and here.

Now, were people offended?  I’m sure they were.  And because of this offensiveness, people wanted Miss California to relinquish her crown.

Example number 2: Wanda Sykes at the White House Correspondence Dinner.  She made a joke that you can see below: 

People were really offended by that and said that Sykes went too far.

So what’s the story behind this?  They both practiced freedom of speech and when it comes to that, I can’t help but think of what John Stuart Mill said about freedom of speech and harm.  He said:

If the arguments of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.

So at what point can we restrict your freedom?  Mill states again:

the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

To be clear, offense does not mean harm.  Were people offended by their speeches?  I’m sure they were.  Were they harmed?  It seems hard to prove that.

(On a personal note, I never understood offense.  However, it takes a lot to offend me.  Perhaps I just admire Mill so much that I’ve taken his work to be a good measuring stick of society’s standards.  So if someone makes a speech which is deemed “offensive,” I seem to be the only one that has the mentality not of, “I’m offended,” but rather, “that person is expressing his or her opinion, and nothing more.”)

With Prejean, she got to keep her crown and rightfully so, I think.  As for Wanda Sykes, the media kept asking was this joke going too far.  Here’s my question back to the media: did she harm anyone?  Did people die? Did people needed to get psychiatric help?  Did these people need counseling from this joke?  It seems not.  At most, people were mad and offended.  So did Wanda Sykes and Carrie Prejean go to far?  The answer is simply no.  They expressed their opinion (and notice that it’s an opinion, which means you don’t have to agree with them or not).  Therefore, they didn’t go “too far.”

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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9 Responses to Two Examples of Freedom of Speech in Crisis

  1. aubreycierra says:

    I agree. In neither of these speeches did they state these things as facts and spoke a pure matter of opinion. Nothing more The first speech by Prejean she simply stated how she personally felt and that she still thinks that its ok for people to chose. In the second, Wanda Sykes didn’t say anything that a comedian wouldn’t have said in a skit of social commentary. Why should she be scrutinized when others have said worse things and had no such reaction.

  2. Nancy says:

    well, i somewhat disagree.

    i think miss california should be dismissed, but because of the pictures, not her statements. she was in breach of contract, and therefore should not keep her job. end of story.

    as to what she and wanda sykes said, whatever. freedom of speech.

  3. shaunmiller says:

    That’s a good point, Nancy. I knew she was in breach of contract, but I really didn’t investigate that part. Do you know what the breach was about?

  4. Nancy says:

    well, as i recall, basically when she signed up for the competition, she signed an agreement saying that there were no nude or semi-nude photos of her out there, because if there were, she would risk being disqualified. then of course a few surfaced, and she said “oh, whoops, just that one then, i forgot about that”, and then more came out…

    i hear her excuse now is “well, i was doing this lingerie shoot, and those must have been taken when there was a breeze that blew my shirt open, because i didn’t know about them”, which i think is ridiculous.

    in any case, there’s also been talk that she’s additionally in breach because when the controversy started to get big, she stopped attending to her duties in california and started traveling the country to appear at conservative rallies and talk shows and so forth, so she’s also “shirking her duties”.

    trump of course has now decided that it doesn’t matter, saying basically “well, yeah, she was in breach of contract, but those photos are hot, so no big deal”.

  5. thekillerj says:

    Nancy, it wouldn’t have even been an issue if not for the gay comment. The homosexual mafia were trying anything they could to throw her under the bus and it didn’t work.

  6. shaunmiller says:


    But what about the semi-nude photos? Surely there have been contestants who have faced controversy before as you can see here:

    If she broke her contract, clearly that’s a violation. Of course, I think it’s ridiculous that part of the contract is that she couldn’t do any semi-nude photos to a contest where you semi-nude anyways. Nevertheless, it’s in the contract and if you break the contract, then it becomes null and void.

  7. Nancy says:

    well, i certainly agree that it was her stated opinion that caused the media firestorm, but please also remember that it was perez hilton who was leading the crusade against her, and then please consider whether you really think most gay folk or their sympathizers take him seriously at all. just because he shouts loudly doesn’t mean many people support his cause.
    i think it was short-sighted of her to answer the question so directly, seeing as she lives in a state and an industry that would prefer she went the other way, but it was her right to say what she felt, and i think most liberals (and gays) would agree with that.
    donald trump’s decision to bend the rules for her, however, is clearly arbitrary, and i think that’s unfortunate, because it reinforces the idea that you can get away with things as long as you have powerful people on your side (in this case because you’re sexy enough). perhaps that’s the unfortunate truth, especially in her business, but still.

  8. Chris says:

    Catching up on old posts having just found your blog for the first time; I think this post conflates freedom of speech (the state not restricting your speech) with freedom from criticism.

    It’s good that Sykes and Prejean weren’t censored, and it’s good — or at least indifferent — that some people say that they think Sykes/Prejean’s ideas were bad ones and deserve to be criticized and marginalized. I don’t see that this public receipt of offense generates any contradiction to freedom of speech at all.

    I guess we could ask why it’s important to register offense at all, and I think the answer is that, when we do, we’re making a moral prescription of the world we want to live in. If someone tells me that they think wives should always obey their husbands and I strongly disagree rather than refusing to be offended because it’s “just their opinion”, I’m attempting to persuade them, and other people, of how the world should be changed for the better. If doing that isn’t valuable, then neither is philosophy. 🙂

    • shaunmiller says:

      Hi Chris, Welcome.

      That’s a good point. The freedom of speech comes with the freedom to criticize which means that people are going to be offended. Obviously they weren’t censored and they were criticized by a lot of people. Thus, when you criticize a speech, you’re not necessarily saying that that person should be censored. Rather, you’re saying something like, “You have the freedom to say it, but I disagree with what you just said. Here’s why. . .” From there, you give them a moral framework as to why that person is wrong. Good call.

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