In the past year or two I've noticed the public discourse to increasingly contain arguments about "hate speech" and that this shouldn't be covered by free speech laws. I won't be interested in any moral or legal arguments here, but a historical perspective on free speech. The reason I'm getting more curious about that specifically today is because today a Scottish court found a man guilty of a hate crime for teaching his girlfriend's pug to respond to "Sieg Heil" with the Hitler salute.

One of the central arguments in support of free speech is that people do not change their opinion by being threatened with punishment if they voice it; basically the claim that outlawing an opinion won't get rid of it.

Now that sounds pretty plausible to me, but what's actually the historical experience we have with this? Have there been controversial ideas that were successfully outlawed, without generating any significant violence (on the part of the government or the population) or civil unrest? I'm not really looking for a very concrete idea, as hate speech laws themselves don't, say, enumerate a list of concrete notions that you express on pain of certain penalties, but if such ideas existed, that'll be interesting, too.

Question: historically, were any controversial ideas outlawed and then successfully eliminated without requiring significant force to implement that?

  • @MarkC.Wallace Hate speech laws are just an example of outlawing controversial speech that I put in to give an idea of what I'm looking for. I don't see how any of the examples you give outlawed any particular speech, can you explain? I also fail to see the discrepancy you see between my question's title and the question, maybe you missed the "not" in the title?
    – G. Bach
    Mar 20, 2018 at 23:18
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    The reason for banning hate speech is not to change the opinion of the hate speakers, it is to protect the recipients of hate speech, or to prevent the consequences of hate speech.
    – Dohn Joe
    Mar 21, 2018 at 0:55
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    @DohnJoe "protect the recipients" - from what? o_0
    – G. Bach
    Mar 21, 2018 at 1:46
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    @G.Bach hate speech, or other malevolent speech, can do harm, e.g. defamation. Thus, speech with the sole intent to cause harm is forbidden.
    – Dohn Joe
    Mar 21, 2018 at 2:19

5 Answers 5


Have there been controversial ideas that were successfully outlawed, without generating any significant violence (on the part of the government or the population) or civil unrest?

Apart from the obvious German anti holocaust denial / Nazi laws, there has of course been plenty of ideas banned without much of a reaction throughout history. One particularly widespread example is lèse-majesté laws, which criminalise disrespect towards the sovereign (or some other state authority). Such bans are found in numerous polities throughout history, ranging from ancient Rome to modern Thailand. Enforcement of such laws can sometimes have murderous results (e.g., Imperial China), but did not otherwise generate much violence or unrest.

(Of course, law enforcement generally depends on the use of force; so I am interpreting "significant violence" to mean a level of violence beyond typical policing.)

Perhaps the real difficulty with the question is defining "controversial". Lèse-majesté was widely accepted to be criminal as a matter of course for most of history. Likewise, modern bans on Nazism, or holocaust denial, or hate speech are only controversial because of libertarian concerns for free speech. These ideas are not in and of themselves controversial - the vast majority of people easily agree the holocaust happened, believe Nazis are evil, and abhors hate speech.

In fact, one challenge with this question is that if an idea gets banned without causing much reaction, then one could argue clearly it wasn't that controversial in the first place.

The few surviving instances of lèse-majesté laws still in force today could be considered an example. While they were widely accepted historically, for obvious reasons they are now commonly considered hopelessly antiquated. Nonetheless, it's still on the books of several countries, including even liberal democracies like the Netherlands or Denmark. However, their continuing prosecution of offenders does not appear to have resulted in any notable levels of violence.

Another example might be the suppression of the Hundred Schools of Thought in China. This was first attempted under the Qin dynasty, and then rather more successfully in the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty. Although the generally brutal Qin regime enforced the policy with characteristic violence, Emperor Wu was much more restrained - his ban primarily concerned only the public sector, and did not appear to have resorted to overt violence.

In both cases, no violent resistance occurred specifically in association with the policies. In Qin's case, this was likely because the people had much more pressing things to worry about, i.e. the brutal regime's heavy taxation - within a few years a series of peasant revolts brought the empire down. In Han's case, Emperor Wu made knowledge in Confucianism the key criteria for job advancement in his empire, and in this way let the opposing schools literally die out in obscurity.

Lastly, a possible example is the Great Schism of Christianity, which was rooted in disputes over some finer points of theology, such as the idea of papal primary. In 1054, (representatives of) the Papacy and the Ecumenical Patriarch excommunicated each other over these and other differences (and politics).

Given the weight of excommunication in this highly religious era, one could say Western Christendom banned the Byzantine version of theology, while Eastern Christendom banned the Roman interpretation thereof. The underlying ideas are apparently controversial enough, that almost 1,000 years later, the two sides have yet to fully resolve their differences.

No significant violence resulted - in fact most contemporary Christians probably didn't notice the split at all. More importantly, support for each side of the controversy was split among geographic terms. That is, the finer points of theology in dispute was controversial in Christianity as a whole, but each half of Christendom largely supported the same interpretation, so the "bans", so to speak, didn't incite internal violence.

Catholic Crusaders did sack Constantinople in 1204, though this was not directly due to theology.

That said, all this is independent of the argument that:

outlawing an opinion won't get rid of it.

Which is technically true. That doesn't mean that the popularity of the opinion wouldn't be affected by a ban, though.

Consider again the ideological history of China. A vast array of ideologies once flourished during ancient China's warring states period, for example Mohism. In some ways it anticipated modern Communism, and at one point even rivalled Confucianism in popularity.

After Emperor Wu's reign, however, most of these schools of thought faded out of history due to the aforementioned government suppression. With the exception of Taoism which survived as a religion, and some of the more technical schools which persisted as technical manuals, China became wholly dominated by Confucianism up until the early modern period.

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    I think this answer was mostly useful because it clarified some of the nebulousness around what I'm thinking about these issues, less so because of the (still useful) examples you gave.
    – G. Bach
    Mar 21, 2018 at 16:25
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    I'm not so sure the Great Schism was as bloodless as you imply. There was a period where the Byzantine emperor was expanding the area of orthodox authority into the West (including Italy) via the sword, and he physically deposed at least one Pope. I'd point more to the suppressed Lollard movement (although there was some judicious capital punishment involved).
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 21, 2018 at 18:21
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    Rwanda's suppression of the terms Hutu and Tutsi since the 1994 genocide is another modern example where there has been relatively little violence.
    – sventechie
    Mar 21, 2018 at 18:41
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    @T.E.D. My point with the schism is that it didn't cause violence within the Catholic or Orthodox churches; their actions against each other are more political than ideological.
    – Semaphore
    Mar 21, 2018 at 20:13
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    @Semaphore - I'd argue the schism itself was more political than ideological. Neither the Pope nor the Eastern Emperor wanted to answer to the other. It only became ideological later as the two sides ideologically drifted from each other and neither had the ability to enforce conformance on the other any more.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 21, 2018 at 20:42

In Germany and Austria there are laws against reviving the Nazi ideology. As an Austrian I am not aware of any violence involved in enforcing these laws. Every once in a while, people are sentenced to jail or fined. However, physical violence is rarely if ever involved.

On a general note, all laws require a certain extent of (legal) force to be, and remain, implemented. Otherwise, the laws would be either redundant (e.g. banning something nobody actually does) or dead-law (banning something everybody does, however, nobody is prosecuted).

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    This is closer to the purpose/rationale of banning hate speech, the offence (a racial hate crime) for which Mark Meechan (the Scot in OP's question) was charged. Back to the question - which is answered obliquely (though not directly): Has banning hate speech (controversial ideas) ever not lead to much violence in enforcement or resistance? The answer would be, quite clearly, Yes. Countless countries has laws against hate speech, and in most cases, it does not lead to violence.
    – J Asia
    Mar 21, 2018 at 9:20
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    As @Semaphore has pointed out, Nazi ideology isn't so much controversial as it is universally disapproved.
    – John Dee
    Mar 21, 2018 at 17:00
  • @JohnDee I would rather say, that it is disapproved by the majority, there are definitely groups, which took up at least parts of Nazi ideology. Definitely the far-right, and right-wing extremists. And the fact, that people are still persecuted for offences against the ban of Nazi revival is proof to the fact, that these laws are still relevant and necessary. If Nazism was universally disapproved of, there wouldn't be trials against people violating these very laws.
    – Dohn Joe
    Mar 21, 2018 at 22:52

@Dohn Joe has the correct answer; enforcement of law is, by definition, violence. Government is a monopoly on the use of violence; law is legalized violence. The question is a tautology.

In the body of your question you change the context to "leads to civil unrest". If the question is, "Have governmental laws restricting free speech suppressed an idea without leading to civil unrest?" then the answer is unequivocally yes, and there are innumerable examples of governmental suppression of free speech that does not lead to civil unrest.

I suspect that many of the examples below will fall into another logic trap in your question - they are not controversial - but if the question becomes "Has government action against controversy led to civil unrest?" then the question becomes merely an exercise in definitions - those actions that led to civil unrest were controversial, while those actions that did not, were not. I think that the definition of "law" implies "controversy" - any law that was not passed by a unanimous margin is controversial. And if the margin is unanimous, then why pass a law? (In the pre-modern era, that definition won't work - autocrats can pass laws without controversy).

First, free speech is not a given - only very recently has the notion of "free speech" been a thing. Throughout most of history, the concept was unknown. Throughout most of history, in most countries you could be jailed, exiled or executed for speech against the government. This was so commonly accepted as a principle that it did not create social unrest. (it did create violence in the form of incarceration, exile or execution, but that's the tautology.) Governments frequently smashed printing presses. For most of the history of printing, a printer needed a license to publish material, and that license could be withdrawn. Still true today in most countries.

Even today, many countries only partially accept the concept - China, Cuba, most Islamic countries, etc. set a much lower priority on free speech than on other social norms. The overwhelming majority of those cases do not result in civil unrest. Within the French Republic/Empire you could be killed not just for counter- revolutionary speech, but for failure to speak in a revolutionary enough fashion; this did not lead to civil unrest - other things led to civil unrest but the new state religion of reason was just fine. In most revolutionary governments, (e.g. Bolshevik Russia), freedom of speech was an empty notion.

Second, even governments that admit the concept of free speech admit multiple exceptions, including the "Fire in a crowded theatre" exception, and, for example, Copyright law or trademark law. Most countries include some form of restriction designed to maintain public decency - If I recall correctly, discussion of homosexuality in Russia is illegal.

I should have cited the obvious reference - Wikipedia's discussion of Freedom of Speech, under the subheading Limitations

  • In Elizabethan times, it was illegal to discuss the succession of Queen Elizabeth.

  • Most Western European countries imposed religious restrictions on their populations - Ferdinand & Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain in order to ensure religious conformity. Elizabeth imposed the Anglican church on England. Most countries restricted preaching. Profession of religions other than the state religion were illegal, and these restrictions were broadly supported by the population.

A random list of other examples that come immediately to mind.

  • The wide variety of laws against Jews, Romany, and other ethnic minorities.

  • In SUlla's Rome, expressing an opinion that was at odds with the state could lead to proscription.

  • In colonial America there were multiple restrictions on free speech concerning slaves. There were also prohibitions against a variety of minority religions

  • The USA today restricts some forms of religious practice under the guideline that it is legal to believe, but not to take certain actions.

  • Most Islamic countries prioritize Sharia over free speech (speaking broadly)

  • The US Alienation and Sedition acts.

  • US Comstock laws prohibited discussion of birth control.

  • Quick google search picked up this example of governmental restrictions on speech in Elizabethan England; debate, but no civil unrest.

  • DMCA,

  • Defamation laws, including slander, libel, etc.

The Supreme court is currently considering a case about cake baking that is based on public access clauses that restrict free speech - the question is whether baking a cake constitutes an artistic expression (which is to say "speech", or whether it is a commercial endeavor.)

  • All countries have (as far as I know) Treason laws & sedition laws that prohibit speech intended to undermine the government. During wartime these are typically strengthened.

I suspect that statistically speaking, governmental restrictions on free speech are approved more often than they are protested, and civil unrest is very rare.

  • 3
    Nice exposition. If nothing else, this is a significant attempt to track how free speech came about. How it is provisioned in each country, i.e. whether enacted as law or administratively, is of course dependent on context. This is a broad question, requiring a fairly broad answer.
    – J Asia
    Mar 21, 2018 at 12:40
  • Interesting collection of examples, even if a bunch of them don't really fit the spirit of what I was looking for; but that's at least partially due to my question not having been formulated (or thought through) clearly enough. Thanks!
    – G. Bach
    Mar 21, 2018 at 16:24

In Germany, holocaust denial is illegal (as is using Nazi symbols, except for in a context of art or science).

Some people have spent short jail sentences for this, which may or may not count as violence for enforcement for you. However, I don't see signs of any broader negative impacts, where outlawing one negative opinion would lead to outlawing more, or to draconian laws to enforce it.

Conversely, while there is of course some violence from neo-Nazis, I don't see any basis for assuming that this is due them being forbidden from denying the Holocaust/using Nazi symbols.

My overall impression is that outlawing this particular controversial opinion has worked out quite well for Germany. As far as I can tell, this seems to be the broad consensus in the German public, too.


As stated by Amo, there is a real need for consensus. If consensus is missing, no law will work. Whatever the government may try. Take for example prohibition in the thirties. There was enough public support to make alcohol illegal.

Then, as now, people were often forced to support the law. Any politician not supporting a ban on alcohol was walking on very thin ice. Naming and shaming were popular tactics, just as today. Anti alcohol advocates used every trick in the book to sway public opinion in their favor. I don't say they broke the law doing that, but at the very least went as far as possible to sway opinion makers to support them.

The public generally approved of it. Alcohol was a big problem back then. But when the laws were there, they still wanted a drink. They approved of the idea, but not the reality.

There is, thank be the gods, wide public support to ban Nazism in Europe. Hate speech is a different matter. A ban on Nazism is clear enough. What is hate speech exactly? It's getting very close to 'anything I don't approve of, no matter the arguments'.

That makes is very difficult to enforce, because the general public probably doesn't accept that.

In the past, when smoking became popular in Europe, both the authorities and the church try to ban it. Health issues weren't known back then. The church even excommunicated people who smoked. Penalties and fines were harsh. Didn't work, because the consensus wasn't there.

Look at big political changes in society: the French revolution, before that the the Reformation and in particular the liberal revolutions of 1848. The authorities (kings, pope) did what they could to suppress it, in the end without much success. Why? Because the general public in the end didn't support them. They lacked the consensus.

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