Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | May 8, 2014

Scattered Thoughts on Free Speech

A few weeks ago, I linked to the above xkcd comic with basic approval. Some others were less impressed.

Offered for your consideration, without any necessary endorsement on my part. Food for thought.

Vikram Bath at Ordinary Times (footnote omitted):

I hate this comic. It views “the right to free speech” as a legal requirement to be regrettably complied with. It places no value on free speech as a matter of principle.

Just because the first amendment to free speech speaks only of the government does not mean that the rest of us should feel free to shout down (youtube) those we don’t agree with. Yes, I know you think your opponents are assholes and that you are simply using your own free speech to prevent them from speaking, but that actually makes you at least as much of an asshole as them. Retract those claws.

I think part of the reason Randall drew this comic was a sense of his side winning in the marketplace of ideas. The most recent boycotts seem to be of bigots and other unsympathetic characters. Munroe isn’t thinking about the McCarthy-era blacklists that were simply private boycotts of workers holding legally protected but worse-than-assholish political beliefs. Are these the norms of private behavior we wish to emulate and carry into the future?

Free speech ought to be more than just a legal right. It should be an enthusiastically embraced principle. We should actively seek out and promote those who are silenced. This is the principle that undergirds banned books lists. Most books on such lists never faced any legal restrictions, but were removed from collections on the taste grounds endorsed so wholeheartedly by Munroe. Yes, restrictions based on taste are slightly less pernicious than those enforced by governmental decree, but there’s still enough left to make for some pernicion.

Enthusiastic support of free speech means that you seek to host controversial speakers you disagree with even though you aren’t legally required to. It means you don’t seek to take away someone’s livelihood for holding views that are statistically moderate for the population. It means that you actively seek out and read the work of smart people you hate.

Freddie deBoer:

I don’t know how you can possibly say that we have free speech in principle if you’re enthusiastically supportive of efforts to restrict free speech in practice. It’s just like saying that Bill Gates and a homeless man have the same right to own a Ferrari. Of course free speech doesn’t mean you have a right to not be criticized or a right to occupy every forum. But the way in which contempt for the very term “free speech” has become one of those cultural signals that are the glue of today’s bourgie elite progressivism can and will lead to actual, no bullshit suppression of speech. A liberalism that claims that rights are only denied if tanks are rolling through the streets is a pathetic liberalism and one that stands in direct and stark contrast to the history of the principled left.

Me, I am absolutely chilled by the idea that companies should have the right to fire people because they hold unpopular political beliefs, even when those beliefs are not being expressed in the workplace. And I find the notion that progressives can safely endorse that bit of crude libertarianism so immensely short-sighted I can’t quite believe it. …

In a system where you have to work to live, if employers have unfettered ability to force your expulsion because you hold political beliefs that the company or your fellow employees find unpalatable, then there is no right to hold unpopular political beliefs at all. There’s no protection, not only for opponents of gay marriage, but for radical feminists, communists, black nationalists…. And the long-term consequence of a world where employees lack the right to political expression is a world where that right becomes solely held by the idle rich.

See also Freddie’s post here on the same general topic.


  1. FdB’s belief in free speech runs right up to the point where LGM makes fun of him. Wotta putz …. 1A rights for employees vs. their employers would be the Employment Lawyers’ Bonanza Act of 2014.

  2. 1A rights for employees vs. their employers would be the Employment Lawyers’ Bonanza Act of 2014.

    True. That part (among others) is undercooked.

    One thing that the study and practice of law have taught me is that it is excruciatingly difficult to legislate “live and let live.” You need a cultural default for that, but too many people seem predisposed to be assholes or to be the tyrants of their own little fiefdoms.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: