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Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Are Illiberal Acts Unethical? APA’s Ethics Code and the Protection of Free Speech

O'Donohue, W., & Fisher, J. E. (2022). 
American Psychologist, 77(8), 875–886.


The American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct (American Psychological Association, 2017b; hereinafter referred to as the Ethics Code) does not contain an enforceable standard regarding psychologists’ role in either honoring or protecting the free speech of others, or ensuring that their own free speech is protected, including an important corollary of free speech, the protection of academic freedom. Illiberal acts illegitimately restrict civil liberties. We argue that the ethics of illiberal acts have not been adequately scrutinized in the Ethics Code. Psychologists require free speech to properly enact their roles as scientists as well as professionals who wish to advocate for their clients and students to enhance social justice. This article delineates criteria for what ought to be included in the Ethics Code, argues that ethical issues regarding the protection of free speech rights meet these criteria, and proposes language to be added to the Ethics Code.

Impact Statement

Freedom of speech is a fundamental civil right and currently has come under threat. Psychologists can only perform their duties as scientists, educators, or practitioners if they are not censored or fear censorship. The American Psychological Association’s (APA’s) Ethics Code contains no enforceable ethical standard to protect freedom of speech for psychologists. This article examines the ethics of free speech and argues for amending the APA Ethics Code to more clearly delineate psychologists’ rights and duties regarding free speech. This article argues that such protection is an ethical matter and for specific language to be included in the Ethics Code.


Free speech is central not only within the political sphere but also for the proper functioning of scholars and educators. Unfortunately, the ethics of free speech are not properly explicated in the current version of the American Psychological Association’s Ethics Code and this is particularly concerning given data that indicate a waning appreciation and protection of free speech in a variety of contexts. This article argues for fulsome protection of free speech rights by the inclusion of a clear and well-articulated statement in the Ethics Code of the psychologist’s duties related to free speech. Psychologists are committed to social justice and there can be no social justice without free speech.