The limits of free speech?

Journalists are supposed to defend the freedom of speech, no matter what, right?

But what happens when someone asks us to defend the right of someone to advocate taking our rights away? What then?

An column last week illustrated why someone’s free exercise of speech shouldn’t always be celebrated by journalists.

ESPN’s Jemele Hill offered a defense of professional football player David Tyree, who campaigned against marriage equality in advance of last week’s vote in New York State approving the right of gays and lesbians to marry.

“Tyree’s comments have, predictably, generated two reactions: disdain and ridicule,” Hill wrote. “I’m going to try a different reaction: acceptance.”

Hill never endorses Tyree’s position, but she does criticize his critics.

“Tyree is being depicted as an uninformed religious zealot, but at least he’s up-front. He helped deliver thousands of petitions against the same-sex marriage bill and joined the National Organization for Marriage at a recent news conference in Albany,” she wrote.

“That doesn’t sound like someone who is crazy. Rather, it sounds like someone who isn’t going to back down from what he believes.”

Fair enough. But I don’t believe that responsible writers, including Hill, should spend their time with their audiences defending individuals who work to deny rights to others.

The debate over the freedom to marry is a different type of issue than whether to balance the budget by raising taxes or cutting services. Or whether the city or the team should pay for the new local sports arena. This is about whether people are going to have a right, not what they choose to do with it.

Hill references Tyree’s religious motivation for his position. Since Hill raised the topic of religion, I’ll bring up my religious motivation in writing about this issue.

My religion – Unitarian Universalism – strongly defends the freedom to marry for all people, regardless of sexual orientation. But that’s not my primary motivation here. It’s something that the former minister at my church told me several years ago:

“The only thing we can’t tolerate is intolerance.”

An absolutist defense of tolerance becomes an intellectual trap. Tolerate everything, and you must tolerate the efforts of your opponents to silence you, to isolate you, and ultimately to disempower you. Opponents of various rights have grown wise to the irony, and attempted to use it to undermine the rights of others. In this example, Hill effectively argues for accepting Tyree’s religious freedom… which he cites to deny marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

Sorry, but while my religion promotes tolerance, I can’t tolerate intolerance.

Now, if Tyree’s critics were arguing that the football player should not have the legal right to campaign against marriage equality, I’d stand with Hill. Or if Tyree and his allies were objecting to the New York law forcing their religious leaders to perform ceremonies contrary to their faith, I’d stand with them, too.

But the New York law does not do that; it explicitly exempts religious leaders from any liability from refusing to perform a marriage ceremony that their faith will not permit them to endorse. Nor has anyone that I’ve found declared that Tyree and other marriage equality opponents should not have the legal right to campaign, to debate and to witness their views.

Tyree’s foes have, as Hill illustrated, called him a bigot and a jerk. That’s fair game, in my view. While Tyree and his allies have, and should have, the legal right to organize, speak and campaign against the rights of others, the rest of us are under no moral or ethical obligation to remain quiet and accept their intolerance without offering our criticism in response.

Tolerance is part of my faith. It is part of my professional ethic. But I won’t allow others to use that tolerance as a weapon against me or against people fighting for the same rights that others enjoy. Nor do I feel like letting a high-profile writer in a popular forum excuse such an attempt without responding to that.

As we continue into the Internet era, millions more voices are joining our global chorus. Collectively, we’re eventually going to come to some equilibrium, some consensus about how we’re all going to engage in conversation online. While I hope that our legal standards continue to protect the rights of all to advocate even the most obnoxious positions, I also hope that our personal standards never grow so lax that we feel like we must accept, without criticism, those who would deny our rights, or the rights of others.

Want to write about David Tyree? Fine. Write about his role in one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history, if you have something fresh to say about that. But don’t waste your audience’s valuable time writing about his opposition to the freedom to marry. Unless you’re going to take the opportunity to stand with his critics.

Because the one thing we shouldn’t tolerate is intolerance.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. says:


    If one person expresses their opinion, expressing contempt for that opinion is not censorship. Censorship is preventing someone from speaking.

    All you have when person B expresses criticism for person A’s expression is two people expressing their freedom of speech.

    Both Person A and Person B, having aired their views, has to accept the fact that others’ freedom of speech means that Persons C through Z may now weigh in.

    And all of them, A to Z, must accept that the quality of their expression — how well thought out it is, whether or not it contains offensive language, whether or not their utterance is perceived to be fair, or polite, or whatever, will influence how seriously all the others take them and their words.

  2. Robert,

    It is happening every part of the world, some peoples are happy with the freedom of journalism and some don’t like it (old minds). The world of journalism is thinking to make code of conduct for their self but i don’t think in the era of social media why people don’t like freedom of Electronic and Print media.

  3. So you’re intolerant of intolerance. Can I be intolerant of intolerance, too? In fact, I’d like intolerant of intolerance of intolerance! Yes, that’s right, I want to put intolerant people in jail, including people who are intolerant of intolerance! I just hope that those people who intolerant of intolerance of intolerance of intolerance don’t get into power, because they would probably have me shot. But they’ll get theirs, once people who are intolerant of intolerance of intolerance of intolerance of intolerance take over!

    It might be simpler to admit the truth: that the position “I’m intolerant of intolerance” is self-refuting, contradictory, and in a word, stupid.

    The distinction Mr Niles draws between Mr Tyree and himself is simply that Tyree is wrong and he is right. He calls (or at least endorses others calling) Tyree “a bigot and a jerk” — but no one adduces any evidence of that, except that Tyree disagrees with them. Tyree has not, for example, descended to name-calling.

    The only intellectually and morally defensible position to take with someone who peacefully and honestly disagrees — whether about gay marriage or the balanced budget — is, well, peaceful and honest disagreement in return.

  4. says:


    Your article makes the case for censorship and you may not even know it. Who is the arbiter of what is “intolerant”? Is it you, society, the elite, God? What a person deems as tolerant or intolerant is largely due to ones point of view on almost every social issue.

    On abortion if your focus is on the women, one can make the case that a society demanding a women to carry a pregnancy to term is

  5. How can I have an honest disagreement with someone if I’m not allowed to call them wrong? I have to show my “intolerance” for their point of view by doing that.

    That’s what I am asking here – for journalists who wish to stand up for freedom to stop remaining silent and refusing to criticize those who stand against the extension of legal rights to citizens whom the law has held in lower status.

    I couldn’t make more explicit that I support the legal right of people such as Tyree to speak in favor of policies that I abhor. But I also do not believe that journalists should celebrate speech that seeks to deny the rights of others, as Hill has done.

    And I find it laughable (yes, laughable) to equate someone who is trying to deny rights to others with people who fought to extend rights to others. Let’s set aside these false equivalencies. On this issue, David Tyree stands alongside those who deny legal rights to others, on the opposite side of such issues from people such as Douglass and King and Tubman and Anthony.