Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Who Supports Freedom of Speech? Tolerance vs. Prejudice

High intelligence increases support for freedom of speech.

Although there is widespread agreement that freedom of speech is foundational to a democratic society, in practice, people differ greatly in how much they support controversial speech, especially from groups they do not like. Hence, some people selectively endorse freedom of speech for those who express views they agree with while being less tolerant of those with opposing views.

One study found that people on both the left and the right of the political spectrum tended to express intolerance towards allowing people to publicly express views that opposed their ideological values (Crawford & Pilanski, 2014). On the other hand, there is evidence that some people endorse freedom of speech in a principled manner, being willing to support the right of groups they dislike to express their views publicly. For example, a study found that those with a strong commitment to democratic principles were more opposed to government censorship of pornography and hate speech, while those with more authoritarian values supported such censorship (Lambe, 2004).

More recent research linked support for free speech with intelligence (De keersmaecker et al., 2020). This was tested in three studies in which people were asked about whether they thought members of different groups with a wide range of political, religious, and social views should be allowed to speak in public, teach at college or university, or have their books made available in public libraries. The specific groups mentioned varied across the three studies but included a mix of groups that tend to be disliked by conservatives (e.g., communists, anti-religionists), those who tend to be disliked by liberals (e.g., Tea Party members, Christian fundamentalists), and those who are disliked more generally (e.g., racists). In all three studies, it was found that people who scored higher in measures of intelligence tended to support free speech for all the groups mentioned, regardless of their own political affiliation. Additionally, in study 2, participants were asked to indicate how they felt about each group on a “feeling thermometer” ranging from cold and unfavorable to warm and favorable. This is considered a measure of affective prejudice (social psychologists consider disliking people because they belong to a particular group to represent a form of prejudice, irrespective of whether such dislike is justified). They found that both people with high and low intelligence tended to dislike specific groups, although they differed on which ones. Specifically, people with lower intelligence had colder, more unfavorable views of socialists, anti-religionists, and homosexuals, while those with higher intelligence had negative views of big business, the Tea Party, and Christian fundamentalists. Racists seemed to be generally disliked, regardless of participants’ intelligence. This was consistent with a previous study that found that high and low levels of intelligence each tended to be associated with distinct kinds of prejudice (Brandt & Crawford, 2016). Importantly though, people with higher intelligence still supported freedom of speech for all groups including those they didn’t like. Hence, affective prejudice did not necessarily lead to intolerance of the right of disliked groups to express unpopular views, especially among those high in intelligence.

In their third study, the researchers found that the relationship between intelligence and support for freedom of speech was mediated by intellectual humility, which they defined as, “a person’s independence of intellect and ego, openness to revising one’s viewpoint, respect for others’ viewpoints, and a lack of intellectual overconfidence,” which they argued helps to “promote human thriving through tolerance of other’s ideas, collaboration, and civil discourse” (De keersmaecker et al., 2020). The authors suggested that people with intellectual humility appreciate open debate and the free flow of information, which they regard as important for informed decision-making.

I found these findings about attitudes to disliked groups particularly interesting as they shed light on some provocative claims made in a much earlier paper about prejudice against Christian fundamentalists (Bolce & De Maio, 2008). This paper argued that prejudice against this group is based on “exaggerated stereotypes” propagated by the media of fundamentalists as intolerant, extremist, inegalitarian, and as having values outside the broad mainstream of society. What exactly makes something “exaggerated” is a matter of interpretation, but there is evidence that these stereotypes have a substantial grain of truth, as we shall soon see. Using data from the American National Election Studies from 1988-2004, the authors examined several factors associated with prejudice against Christian fundamentalists. To measure prejudice, they used a composite measure that not only included a feeling thermometer, but also whether respondents considered fundamentalists to be “extremely intolerant,” as well as “exaggerated attributions” about their positions on political ideology[1] and equal roles for women. One of their findings was that people who placed a high value on tolerating people with value systems different from their own tended to be particularly prejudiced against fundamentalist Christians. They argue that this represents a form of hypocrisy in that these people seem to be unaware that tolerating moral values different from one's own should include Christian fundamentalists “or that they are unwilling to extend this to at least one prominent group with value orientations different from their own.” However, this argument is invalid because it conflates prejudice with tolerance, even though they are two different things. As the study by De keersmaecker et al. showed, people who dislike Christian fundamentalists may yet be willing to extend to them tolerance of their right to express their views, as a matter of principle.

On the other hand, Christian fundamentalists are much less likely to extend the same courtesy to people whose values they disagree with. A different study (for details, see Djupe, 2019) comparing atheists and white evangelicals found that although atheists generally did not like Christian fundamentalists, the majority of them would support their freedom of speech rights. In fact, of all religious groups in the study, atheists and agnostics were the most likely to extend rights to the groups they least liked. On the other hand, only a minority of white evangelicals would allow atheists to have the same rights. Furthermore, another study (Altemeyer, 2003) provided empirical evidence—in case there was any doubt—that Christian fundamentalists tend to be both intolerant of and prejudiced against non-Christians. Specifically, this study found that a measure of religious fundamentalism (“the attitude that one’s religious beliefs contain the fundamental, basic, intrinsic, essential, inerrant truth about humanity and deity”) had extraordinarily high positive correlations[2] with a measure of religious ethnocentrism (‘the tendency to make “us versus them,” “in-group versus out-group” judgments of others on the basis of religious identification and beliefs’), indicating that the more a fundamentalist a person is in their approach to religion, the more likely they are to reject and disparage those who do not share their values. (Sample items from the religious ethnocentrism scale include, “Our country should always be a Christian country, and other beliefs should be ignored in our public institutions” and “Nonchristian religions have a lot of weird beliefs and pagan ways that Christians should avoid having any contact with.”) Additionally, religious ethnocentrism was substantially positively correlated with prejudice against homosexuals and more moderately with prejudice against racial minorities.

Fundamentalism and religious ethnocentrism reflect the belief that one’s own religious views are uniquely and specially correct and essential, while other views are unacceptable, which discourages tolerance. This seems like the polar opposite of intellectual humility. People who are humbler about their views may be more open to the possibility that other views than their own might be valid. For this reason, they might be more supportive of free speech, as they do not want to stifle the free flow of ideas. Additionally, there might be a connection between intellectual humility and support for democratic ideals, although this would need to be confirmed through empirical research.


[1] Bolce & De Maio argued that the stereotype of fundamentalist Christians making up the religious right is a misconception promoted by the media. On the contrary, a study (Guth, 2019) using data from the American National Election Studies found that white evangelicals are strongly associated with right-wing populist views, more so than any other religious group in America. Additionally, a recent survey (Pew Research Center, 2020) found that 8 in 10 white evangelical Protestants support Donald Trump, again a much higher rate than any other religious group.

[2] The correlations were .82 in study 1 and .78 in study 2. Correlations this high are generally considered to indicate that both measures probably tap the same underlying construct.


Altemeyer, B. (2003). Why Do Religious Fundamentalists Tend to be Prejudiced? The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 13(1), 17–28.

Bolce, L., & De Maio, G. (2008). A Prejudice for the Thinking Classes: Media Exposure, Political Sophistication, and the Anti-Christian Fundamentalist. American Politics Research, 36(2), 155–185.

Brandt, M. J., & Crawford, J. T. (2016). Answering Unresolved Questions About the Relationship Between Cognitive Ability and Prejudice. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(8), 884–892.

Crawford, J. T., & Pilanski, J. M. (2014). Political Intolerance, Right and Left. Political Psychology, 35(6), 841–851.

De keersmaecker, J., Bostyn, D. H., Van Hiel, A., & Roets, A. (2020). Disliked but Free to Speak: Cognitive Ability Is Related to Supporting Freedom of Speech for Groups Across the Ideological Spectrum. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550619896168.

Djupe, P. A. (2019). White evangelicals fear atheists and Democrats would strip away their rights. Why? Washington Post.….…

Guth, J. L. (2019). Are White Evangelicals Populists? The View from the 2016 American National Election Study. The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 17(3), 20–35.

Lambe, J. L. (2004). Who Wants to Censor Pornography and Hate Speech? Mass Communication and Society, 7(3), 279–299.

Pew Research Center. (2020, July 1). White evangelical approval of Trump slips, but eight-in-ten say they would vote for him.…