Freedom of Speech: A psychological principle?

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by Jonathan Weedman

According to Izzy Kalman and Brooks Gibbs, both professionals dedicated to eradicating bullying from our schools, the concept of freedom of speech is the solution to verbal bullying.  We have all heard of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”  In fact, freedom of speech is the “constitutional version of the sticks and stones principal,” according to Gibbs and Kalman. 


The psychological concept that people’s words cannot and should not hurt us is a wonderful principal that teaches children that they can choose not to allow words to affect them negatively and diminish their sense of worth.  In fact, this skill is essential in teaching children how to be resilient.  Just because another child says something mean to them does not mean they have to feel badly about it or take it as a reflection of their own self-image.

Too often children are given the message from society that they should be hurt by other’s words.  As a result, all slander becomes a deep emotional wound.  What we want children to learn is that they are amazing and strong in their own right and no one can take that away from them.  This social skill will aid them in becoming emotionally healthy adults who can bounce back from hardship and not allow others to dictate how they feel about themselves. 

Of course there are exceptions to every rule and freedom of speech is no different.  Freedom of speech does not protect words people use that can cause objective harm.  It is illegal to yell, “Fire!” in a crowded theater because this can cause people to panic and trample each other.  Freedom of speech also does not protect against threats of violence.  No one is allowed to threaten physical harm.

The intervention for verbal bullying is paradoxical.  For example, if a child responds to hurtful words by trying to get that person to stop and deny their freedom of speech, the aggressor may want to do it more.  Instead, if the child understands that their aggressor has the right to say whatever they want AND s/he has the right to not be hurt by it, soon the aggressor becomes bored and runs out of things to say.  This skill can be taught and modeled and children can learn not to be victims to verbal bullying.  This is what we teach at school.