There are problems with the way that free speech is viewed, and it often seems to be mean very little beyond acting as a catchy tag-line. The idea of being able to say whatever you want is one that most people really love, and nobody likes to believe that they are closed off to opposite viewpoints, but there is a lot more to consider here.
Words have consequences, and most would agree with this. In the lightest sense, words could hurt somebody's feelings. In a heavier sense, words can rally support for ideas like Salafi Jihadism or National Socialism, and these ideas ultimately necessitate violence. The US says in its constitution that free speech is a right, and yet even they understand that there have to be exceptions, and they have written many of these exceptions into law. False advertising, incitement to suicide, threats of violence, wanting to kill the president, lying in court, and other basic examples illustrate the US government stepping to prevent speech which could be harmful. 'Free speech' is already a vague term when the majority of its supporters are in favor of keeping all of this.
But the US government goes even further than the examples just mentioned. They infiltrate even non-violent political movements simply for threatening the two-party status quo, they passed the Communist Control Act, they threatened union leaders, they can refuse citizen ship to ex- members of Communist parties, and so on. They are also very happy to allow employers to own the speech of their employees and fire them for the things they say. And then there is what the US does in other countries: murdering political leaders, supporting coups, training and funding terrorists, and so once again. America, sometimes touted as the home of free speech, actually has an agenda to shut down the speech of certain groups both at home and abroad.
The so-called 'free speech advocates' will often only want to defend 'offensive' speech. They will claim that people need to be able to free with their words if we are to have constructive philosophical and political discourse. Indeed, people do not necessarily to have a right to not be offended, as an opinion that is offensive to some may well end up being the right one. Even this essay may be offensive to some people. However, their argument gets overextended to a ridiculous degree. Just because something is offensive does not mean or even suggest that it will ever be useful to anyone. Some words and phrases are used solely to hurt, demoralize, and frighten people. In what context, for example, could a white person calling a black person a racial slur ever help a conversation to reach a better conclusion? The argument is not a good excuse for behavior that is simply abusive.
It is also very clear that people only defend this sort of speech when it is used in relation to causes that they care about. The study 'Freedom of racist speech: Ego and expressive threats' by White and Crandall shows scientifically that free speech defense is applied by people only selectively. It was found that people who were high in racial prejudice were more likely to endorse free speech than regular people when the topic was racist songs and racist comments. However, when the same speech was used to attack coworkers and police, their defense of racist speech was not a useful predictor that they would also be defensive of free speech in these cases. This is evidence for the idea that people just defend the speech that they can imagine themselves making, or speech that comes from people they might get along with or share politics with. Anecdotally, plenty of far-right people manage to work in talk about 'defending free speech' while idolizing Pinochet's Caravan of Death.
And with this selectiveness it is clear that completely free speech can only be self-destructive. To be completely free then it has to be completely open to challenge, which will never last. All of the exceptions to free speech in America are proof, showing that the government do not want it enough and the people do not want it enough. People simply apply the 'right to free speech' to the causes that affect them personally. Around those most privileged, free speech will be eroded bit by bit, until it is nothing but an ancient mantra for those who were historically least censored. White has more power here than black, man has more power here than woman, and wealthy has more power here than poor.
Speaking of the wealthy in particular, it can also be argued that the mere existence of a class society makes free speech impossible. Very powerful speech is limited to the mega-rich, from Murdoch, to Soros, to Zuckerberg, who can make sure that their speech is loud and that other speech is quiet. This means control of the media, of activism, of politicians, of Internet discourse, and of pretty much everything else. They do not physically stop you from saying whatever you want to, but they decide who hears it, they decide who you hear, and they ultimately control what you are willing to believe and say in the first place. Speech is here placed within a power structure where opinions that go against the interests of the rich are always going to be less free. They have near total control.
Americans in particular have fetishized the concept of free speech. The US constitution has been turned into a religious manuscript for the American Cult Religion. Like in other religions, this holy manuscript is not always followed in the same way or even remembered, but it is still something that people are not allowed to insult or question. Is it really just free speech for the sake of itself, thanks to an old piece of paper? Could we not benefit as a society by targeting speech that is proven to only be harmful? Groups like anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, for example, hold back scientific progress and eventually get people hurt. The truth might win eventually, but not without people suffering unnecessarily. And then what is to be done about white nationalists? They are free in America to spread their ideas even though they would end in violent oppression. People are not always going to make the right choices in a time of crisis, and the risk is incredibly great. So perhaps some restrictions of the spread of certain ideas might merit nuanced debate?
I am not actually arguing that the US government should oppose take a more hostile attitude towards free speech than they already do. I do not agree with a lot of things that the US government has done, and if they came out openly against free speech then it would be a cause for great worry. I just believe that individuals would benefit society a lot by changing their perspective on the topic. Keeping a mystical version of free speech sacred only ends up distracting from real life issues such as where speech is already being controlled and where uncontrolled speech is really causing harm. America should not be treated like it is some sort of bastion of free speech when in reality it is a brutal oppressor. And the selective application of free speech defense must be criticized ruthlessly wherever it appears.