Whenever you hear this phrase, you can be sure that you are listening to someone doesn’t actually believe in free speech whatsoever. Because usually, the thing they have to balance their “commitment” to freedom of speech with is their desire to squash and silence all speech they disagree with.
Most often, this comes from a university or other entity (often public) who is being pressured to fire someone who has said something “offensive.” In this case, it’s the University of Rochester regarding Steve Landsburg and his rather odd hypothetical discussion of rape in the aftermath of the Steubenville case. While I disagree with his analysis (and would of course recommend my own instead!), he has every right to have a calm, civil, and rational discussion/thought experiment with the readers of his blog about sensitive issues without being met by an angry mob demanding he instantly be fired.
Not to beat a dead horse and repeat a point that has already been made a million times before, but “offensive” speech is the only speech that needs protection. The concept of “free speech” is only relevant to the extent that it applies to speech that many people don’t like. In order to have truly “free” speech, that protection must be absolute. There is no sort of compromise or balancing act to be performed here. You cannot “balance” the protection of speech with the silencing of it. It simply does not work that way.
Regardless of how silly, stupid, or lacking in logic Landsburg’s comments may have been, he certainly does not deserve to be fired over them. An institution that would punish him for these comments in any way would simply be declaring to the world that they absolutely do not believe in free speech at all. That they believe in regulating and silencing any opinions that may lie outside of the accepted and politically correct mainstream. This is one of those hidden secrets among many public institutions. Something everyone knows, but can never be said. That they don’t really believe in free speech at all. Only speech that they agree with.