Op-Ed: A philosophy of free speech

Thursday, October 20, 2016 - 6:33pm

Free speech debates tend to be dominated by two positions, both of which mask their radical and insidious natures by appealing to seemingly innocuous principles. Adherents of both camps would do well to be more self-critical, to recognize that the motivations of their opponents are not so corrupt as they may seem and to understand that pureness of heart is not a sufficient justification for the policies they prescribe. 

On one hand, many conservatives hold that the innate right to free expression entails that any speech is to be tolerated, since regulation would in principle curtail our fundamental right to freedom. On the other, some believe that hate speech ought to be banned because it offends the sensibilities of others. Whether or not the adherents of these positions will admit it, these are the basic principles operative in campus free speech debates.

Both views are mistaken, and each implies unacceptable consequences. However, moderation for its own sake is no virtue — though some compromise may be hammered out between the relevant interests involved, it’s not enough that we leave this matter to arbitrary case-by-case judgment. Instead, we must offer an alternative principle of speech right that overcomes the difficulties of each view. This principle will follow from the very idea of right itself.

To navigate any controversy of justice, we must first recognize a fundamental fact: Questions of justice arise only when individuals are considered together. Alone, an individual may act well or poorly, but it’s only among others that they may act justly. In any exercise of free choice, an individual limits the freedom of another; in making something mine, I make it not thine. In claiming a right, a person places others under an obligation to respect his freedom, so to be a free agent is to stand in a relation that implies a reciprocal limitation on the freedom of others. Justice concerns those conditions under which my rightful freedoms are made compatible with those of others through the imposition of a general rule of conduct.

What becomes apparent is that any determination of rights implies the limitation of the freedom of some for the sake of others. However, if (as I will only grant here, but not attempt to justify) people are by nature morally equal, we encounter a problem. Because we are all rational beings capable of making judgments, it would violate the general principle of equality if some individuals were privileged in imposing their merely private judgments on others. Even if I have reasons for restricting your freedom, my reasons are my own, so they could never justify this restriction. This is the origin of justice as public reason — that is, the settlement of rights must rest on a principle that regards each individual as rightfully equal and which determines the limits of rights only by reference to reasons equally valid for all. To live in a rightful condition is to have claims on others only insofar as you are also bound by those same claims of others on you (and vice versa).

It should be clear why straightforward justifications of speech restrictions (which typically appeal to the subjective sentiments of individuals — feelings of offense — or to an ideological goal) fail. There are roughly two reasons for this. The first, weaker reason is that they require that an authority (i.e., the University of Michigan) has a substantive conception of an extrinsic good to be promoted by speech (e.g., social justice, climate awareness, etc.). But this isn’t a valid reason for all individuals whose freedoms are to be restricted, because some individuals don’t judge that to be a necessary good. The second reason is that the basic principle for determining rights cannot rest on the private judgment of any individual (i.e., feelings of offense). If it did, then we would, in effect, have no rights at all, because whatever provisional exercise of freedom we undertook would depend on the actual assent of other individuals. We would need to beg the permission of every Christian to criticize the Defense of Marriage Act, of every ROTC officer to criticize the military and so on.

This isn’t to say the cultural libertarian approach is correct, however. To avoid that conclusion, we must justify speech restrictions on some other ground that appeals to public reason. We must situate our system of right within some principle that holds value as a reason for every individual who is bound by this code of conduct. It must proceed from the very idea of students as rights-bearers (that is, as individuals deserving of respect).

Insofar as the University is bound to secure a condition of equal rights for its students, speech that renders the freedom and dignity of students insecure cannot be justified, since it would allow some students to place others in a position of moral inequality. Threats, harassment and speech that impugn the honor of students (either individually or collectively, as in posters disparaging Black students as innately criminal) make it impossible for students to live in a rightful condition. “Hate speech,” which aims to undermine the condition of moral equality, must be stopped and punished for the same reason that seditious speech, which aims to undermine the lawful condition of the state itself, must be punished: It’s incompatible with the very conception of right itself.

Such an account is important because it makes no reference either to particular goals to be pursued through speech (i.e., social justice) or to effects caused by speech (i.e., offense-taking, even “insecurity”). It’s ideologically neutral and respects the rights of each, including dissenting voices (there would be no cause, for instance, to ban speakers for campus on ideological grounds). It’s the only regulatory framework compatible with the very idea of dignity itself — both the freedom to be controversial and the right of moral equality.

Andrew Beddow is an LSA junior.