The ‘free speech’ debate isn’t about free speech

Hardly a week — and sometimes barely an hour — goes by without someone complaining loudly and earnestly about rampant violations of free speech marring American civic life.

The latest high-profile example is Tucker Carlson. Confronted by decade-old transcripts of Carlson calling into a right-wing radio show to express misogynistic views, the primetime Fox News host has defended himself as a martyr for free speech. As far as Carlson is concerned, Media Matters, the liberal muckraking outfit that unearthed and publicized the transcripts, is trying to silence him. But they cannot be allowed to succeed. Nothing less than freedom itself is at stake.

The Carlson kerfluffle will be forgotten any minute, but we can know for certain that it will be repeated in another guise before long. If cable news, talk radio, and social media are to be believed, these are dark days for free speech in America — on college campuses above all, but increasingly throughout our public life. We all need to be on guard about the threat.

Except that “free speech” as a constitutional principle is hardly ever involved in what gets described as threats to freedom of speech. It’s crucially important that we recognize this fact, and come to understand what’s really going on instead.

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, and since the mid-20thcentury it has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to allow a nearly unlimited right of citizens to express themselves. Aside from very narrow categories of so-called fighting words, along with facts and ideas that are proscribed for pressing national security reasons, the federal government permits Americans to say pretty much anything they want without fear of prosecution. There is therefore no free speech crisis in the United States today. We live in a remarkably open society, with the government doing very little to police the boundaries of permissible speech.

Yet we are repeatedly told otherwise. How can that be? Because those raising concerns about restrictions on speech don’t mean “free speech” in the strict, constitutional sense. They use the same term to mean something else — something that might be more accurately called a “culture of free speech,” which they consider to be under assault in an informal (non-legal) sense. By this they mean that people in positions of cultural authority are attempting to delineate what can and cannot be said in public by threatening transgressors with moral denunciation, ridicule, humiliation, and other informal social and potentially economic penalties. (The latter kick in when the transgressor loses business, sponsors, or is fired for what he or she has said.)

Let’s call this the “Millian move,” after John Stuart Mill, the influential 19th-century liberal theorist who defended an open marketplace of ideas as the best way for people to freely make their way to the truth. I have a lot of sympathy for this ideal — on university campuses no less than in civil society at large.

But here’s the thing: No society …read more

Source:: The Week – Politics


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