A Dozen Observations on Free Speech
Wherein I exercise, responsibly, my right to free speech on a topic of great importance
1. One's right to express an opinion brings with it an obligation to form correct opinions, or at least the obligation to make a sincere effort in that direction. The right to free speech brings with it an obligation to exercise the right responsibly.
2. Free speech is rightly valued, not as a means to making the world safe for pornography, or as a mere means to self-expression, but as a means to open inquiry and the pursuit of truth.
3. Although free speech and free expression generally are correctly valued mainly as means to open inquiry and the pursuit, acquisition, and dissemination of truth, it does not follow that some free expression is not a value in itself.
4. The more the populace is addicted to pornography, the less the need for the government to censor political speech. A tyrant is therefore well advised to keep the people well supplied with bread, circuses, and that 'freedom of expression' that allows them to sink, and remain, in the basest depths of the merely private where they will pose no threat to the powers that be.
5. One who defends the right to free speech by identifying with adolescent porno-punks and nihilists of the Charlie Hebdo ilk only succeeds in advertising the fact that he doesn't understand why this right is accorded the status of a right.
6. The free speech clause of the First Amendment to the United States constitution protects the citizen's right to free expression from infringement by the government, not from infringement by any old entity. My home is my castle; you have no First Amendment rights here, or at my various cyber-castles, my weblog, my Substack site, my Facebook page. So it is no violation of your First Amendment rights if I order you off of my property because of your offensive speech or block you from leaving stupid or vile comments at these venues. It is impossible in principle for me to violate your First Amendment rights: I am not the government or an agent thereof. And the same holds at your (private) place of work: you have no First Amendment rights there. Your right to free speech does not entail an obligation in me to provide you with a platform.
Recent developments, however, warrant a qualification of the point just made. I said that the First Amendment protects the citizen from the government, and only from the government. But what if the government, or a particular administration thereof, acquires as adjuncts huge corporations that enable, control, and monitor the flow of the lion’s share of information and opinion? The vast economic clout of such corporate monoliths as Google, Facebook, and Twitter empowers them to buy concessions and influence from elected officials in the government. To the extent that these corporations become agents of the government, or the government in its current administrative incarnation, they arguably violate the First Amendment speech rights of individuals and relatively powerless groups when they suppress the speech of these individuals and groups.
7. The First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press -- call them collectively the First Amendment right to free expression -- is not the same as the right to free expression. If the latter is a natural right, as I claim that it is, then one has it whether or not there is any First Amendment. The First Amendment is a codicil to a document crafted by human beings. It has a conventional nature. The right to free speech, however, is natural. Therefore, the First Amendment right to free expression is not the same as the right to free expression. Second, the right to free expression, if a natural right, is had by persons everywhere. The First Amendment, however, protects citizens of the U.S. against the U. S. government. Third, the First Amendment in its third clause affords legal protection to the natural moral right to free expression. A right by law is not a natural right. Therefore, the First Amendment right to free expression is not the same as the right to free expression.
8. The right of free expression is a natural right. Can I prove it? No. Can you prove the negation? No. But we are better off assuming it than not assuming it.
9. To say that the right to free expression is a natural right is not to say that it is without exceptions. For the exercise of this right is subject to various reasonable and perhaps even morally obligatory restrictions, both in public and in private. There are limits on the exercise of the right in both spheres, but one has the right in both spheres. To have an (exercisable) right is one thing, to exercise it another, and from the fact that one has the right it does not follow that one has the right to its exercise in every actual and possible circumstance. If you say something I deem offensive in my house, on my blog, or while in my employ, then I can justifiably throw you out, or shut you up, or fire you and you cannot justify your bad behavior by invocation of the natural right to free speech. And similarly in public: the government is justified in preventing you from from shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater, to use the hackneyed example. You are not thereby deprived of the right; you are deprived of the right to exercise the right in certain circumstances.
10. The restraint and thoughtfulness exhibited in a responsible exercise of one's right to free speech is not well described as 'self-censorship' given the pejorative connotations of 'censorship.'
11. To suppose that government censorship can never be justified is as extreme as the view that the exercise of the right to free speech permits of no exceptions.
12. It is silly to say, as many do, that speech is 'only speech.' Lying speech that incites violence is not 'just' speech' or 'only words.'