I don’t consider myself an absolutist about anything — except for free speech.
The value of free expression seems so fundamental to me that it hardly needs a defense. It is, after all, enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution. But like any dogma, there is utility in occasionally challenging the assumptions that undergird it.
Which brings me to a paper I recently read in the Sydney Law Review, titled “The Case Against Free Speech.” The author is Brian Leiter, a political philosopher at the University of Chicago. Leiter argues that we shouldn’t think of free speech as an inherently good thing and that there are negative consequences for pretending that it is.
The sort of speech he’s talking about is public, the kind of stuff we hear on television or read in newspapers. He’s not suggesting we should even think about regulating private or interpersonal speech. And in fact, he doesn’t think we can even regulate public speech, mostly because we just don’t have a reliable way to do it.
But he does raise some interesting objections against what’s often called the “autonomy” defense of free speech, which holds that people are only free to the extent that they’re allowed to say what they want, read what they want, and determine for themselves what is true and what is false.
According to Leiter, this is a bogus argument because people are not actually free in the way we suppose. We’re all conditioned by our environment, and what we want and think are really just products of social, economic, and psychological forces beyond our control. If he’s right, then the “autonomy” defenses of free speech are just wrong, and probably dangerous.
I spoke to Leiter about what he thinks we get wrong about free speech, and why most of the arguments people make in defense of it fall apart when you examine them closely. A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
Let me start by summing up your argument as simply as I can, and then we can go from there. I take you to be saying that most of our public speech, the kind of speech we consider morally and politically serious, is not only useless but actually hinders our collective effort to get at the truth, and therefore we shouldn’t permit its expression without considering the social costs.
That’s really close, but I think it’s not quite right in one important respect. Because at the end, I actually argue for a pretty strong libertarian approach to free speech, but not on the grounds that the speech necessarily has value. A lot of it has no value, as you correctly said in your summary.
But basically I don’t think we can be confident that the regulation of speech, or the regulators of speech, would make the right choices in discerning what is good and bad speech, or what is helpful or unhelpful speech. But this says more about the pathologies of the American system than it does about the value of freedom of speech.
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