Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

Free Speech: Because We Can

In the field of Constitutional Law, there are many pages spent trying to come up with a reason for free speech. It’s about the “marketplace of ideas” some say: by putting all claims and points of view out in the open, the public can sort through and figure out the truth, leaving the untruths to fall by the wayside. Others argue that free speech is necessary for democracy, since voters must hear different opinions to decide how to use their votes, and that since even non-political speech can change people’s views, all speech must then be protected.

There are many more justifications like this — a limit on government abuse, a policy to promote a more tolerant citizenship, etc. — but, like most justifications, they all say we should permit free speech because it allows us to do something else. And the frustrating thing about that is that it suggests that free speech should not be permitted when it doesn’t achieve those goals.

Theorists of free speech are, in general, fans of the idea (or at least their market consists of fans) so they try to dance around this. “Oh no,” the marketplace-of-ideas partisans say, “we weren’t suggesting that obviously false statements could be prohibited because, after all, you really never know when false statements could turn out to be true!”

But, as something of a free speech absolutist, it troubles me that such a thing is even theoretically possible. And I worry that if others adopt this theory, they may not be so stringent about the practical requirements. The temptation to clamp down on free speech is always strong; it’s probably not a sound idea to build the principle on such a shaky foundation.

So I have my own justification for freedom of speech: because we can. Human freedom is important, so we should try to protect it from encroachment wherever possible. With most freedoms — freedom of motion, freedom of exchange, freedom of action — permitting them in full would cause some problems. People shouldn’t be free to walk into other people’s bedrooms, take all their stuff, and then punch the poor victims in the face. But hurling a bunch of epithets at the guy really isn’t so bad.

Freedom of speech is one place where we can draw the line and say: all of this is acceptable. There’s no further logic to it than that; freedom of speech is not an instrumental value. Like all freedom, it’s fundamental, and the only reason we happen to single it out is because it’s more reasonable than all of the others.

Close readers will note that this theory doesn’t quite live up to my own goals. By laying freedom of speech’s provision on top of our reasonable ability to do so, I suggest that freedom of speech could be taken away if providing it became unreasonable. But I think this is the right choice: if people really, seriously started getting hurt because of freedom of speech, it seems right for people to take the privilege away. But, to be honest, I can’t even imagine how that might be possible. Words just don’t genuinely wound, they’re always mediated by our listening.

I do worry that people might try to stretch this justification — say that continued free speech might destroy the war effort, or the government, or civil society. But I have no problem destroying all of those. It’s only the destruction of actual people that I worry about.

So here’s to free speech: because we can.

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November 23, 2006


I fail to see how speech is distinguished here from freedom of movement etc. You start off with the classical-liberal sort of notion of having an implicit human right to use your capacities which outside powers need a good reason to take away. Then you say speech is less dangerous than many other things, but frankly it’s not. What would you make of the basic clampdowns on speech that the US Supreme Court has sort of evolved over the years? (Libel, Treason, Obscenity, Direct incentive to harm (fire in a crowded theater), etc.) I disagree with a lot of the sedition/obscenity rulings but it’s true that there is speech that can actually literally hurt people, just as movement etc. can.

posted by Firas on November 24, 2006 #

The canonical example of free speech that can actually cause people to get hurt is yelling ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater. The ensuing stampede for the exits is sure to cause one or more injuries. And for that reason, such speech is indeed illegal. See also, I believe, ‘incitement to riot’.

posted by PJ on November 25, 2006 #

I disagree with your claim that speech can’t “genuinely wound”.

Do you think it’s immoral for someone on the street to slap me, moral fine for them to call me a nigger? If one can choose not to be hurt by the latter, tell me how.

posted by Andrew on November 28, 2006 #

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