Free Speech and Anti-woke Legislation

In a recently published paper, I defend what I call U.S. free speech exceptionalism (FSE) against recent objections from philosophers. FSE refers to the constellation of legal norms and precedents that makes it difficult in the United States to prohibit various kinds of undesirable speech. In the U.S., for instance, hate speech is protected as is much obscenity and defamatory speech that is liable to legal limitation abroad.

Critics of FSE often worry that it is irrational. After all, the reason to constitutionally protect free speech is that doing so realizes several crucial positive goods. These are varied, but a typical list will include (among other things): discovery of the truth, autonomy, diversity, and enabling better democratic deliberation. But—and here’s the problem for FSE—it is easy to imagine that there are circumstances in which we better achieve those goods by limiting, rather than protecting, speech.

Far from promoting truth and democratic deliberation, FSE tolerates misinformation (including false defamatory or libelous statements uttered in the absence of actual malice). Far from promoting diversity, FSE tolerates hate speech, which issues in patterns of exclusion and dignitary harm. Far from promoting autonomy, FSE tolerates demeaning pornography which silences women where it can most matter to hear them speak.

One response on the part of FSE is to deny all of this. Another is to say, sure, there’s bad speech. But the best response to bad speech is more, better speech. I’ve never found these replies satisfying. The best response, in my view, is to own up to these facts, admitting that free speech does not always advance the values that justify it, admit that more speech will not always be forthcoming, and to say that, nevertheless, FSE deserves our allegiance. In virtue of what?

You can read the paper for the full answer, but the short version is that we should accept FSE because departing from it creates new powers on the part of governmental bodies to act in tyrannical ways. (As J.S. Mill recognizes in chapter 5 of On Liberty.) Knowing what we do about human psychology and political power, we have good reason to think that these new powers will be wielded against unpopular minorities. Even if we are convinced that the people that wield the powers in the near term will use them for good, perhaps progressive, ends, we should not be very confident that future leaders will. More than that, we should expect that those silenced by the good people in charge now will be eager to vie for power themselves and silence those who silenced them. By hypothesis, those silenced will not deserve that kind of treatment.

It’s easy to respond to this argument with skepticism. Indeed, I’ve received plenty of sideways glances when I’ve told people why I’m a fan of U.S. free speech jurisprudence.

Well, the politics of the moment has seen an uptick in proposals for legislation that, I think, makes the argument credible. Such legislation aims to suppress the proliferation of radical ideologies. A bill currently under debate in New Hampshire is a good example. It would make it unlawful for a state agency (or contractor thereof) to advocate for or train persons to believe certain tenets of critical race theory, among other things. To take a concrete example, the law would arguably bar a public university from paying a speaker who thinks that the history of the United States is inherently racist. There are several proposed laws like this. Jeffrey Sachs calls them the new anti-woke laws.

At least some of these laws seem to me unconstitutional, violating first amendment rights of educators, contractors, and state employees. For that reason, I do not expect them to be passed (at least not in their current forms). If they are passed, I expect them to be struck down by the courts. But these expectations are expectations formed in a context in which the judicial commitment to FSE remains strong. Weaken that commitment, and I’m less sure.

Liberals worried about these kinds of laws should renew their faith in strong protections for free speech and norms tolerating heterodoxy. Conservatives inclined to support these laws (due to worries that state agencies sometimes use their power to promote fringe ideologies) should instead embrace the constitutional norms that would in some cases lead to their being struck down. For eroding those norms will also make space for progressives to gain power and legislate in similar ways regarding “reactionary” ideology.

Mill was right when he observed that liberal toleration for freedom of speech was rarely principled. He saw this clearly in the reformation, when it was clear that early Protestants usually held toleration up as an ideal only when they perceived their powerlessness to impose their ideology on others with impunity. Generally, the human disposition to “impose [one’s] own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others”, Mill writes, is “hardly ever kept under restraint by anything other than but want of power” (OL: 13).

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, we could embrace the imperfect modus vivendi that is FSE and convert opportunistic support for toleration into principled support. This, rather than attempting to sustain political power longer than our enemies (Sachs’ proposal), seems like the best way forward for our imperfect political union. Or so it does to me.

* Note: Thanks to Andrew J. Cohen for feedback on an earlier version of this post.

Personal Responsibility, Moralism, and The American Right

Consider the idea that individuals ought to try to be self-reliant, willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their loved ones.  This used to be thought of as a reason to oppose state assistance (welfare, food stamps, etc.), and so a reason to oppose “liberals” of the sort in the US Democratic party.  Those liberals, the story goes, pushed the view that the government was there to ensure your well-being, enabling you to reject personal responsibility. 

Notice, though, that a central tenet of the new American right—common to former President Trump’s followers and many of those who rejected him—is a hostility toward and skepticism of immigrants. Those with this skeptical stance seem to believe immigrants are somehow likely to be criminals, simply too different from us to be allowed to join our society, likely to try to replace Christianity as the main religion, or likely to take “our” jobs.

This anti-immigrant stance, it seems to me, is quite opposed to an ideal of self-reliance. Instead of relying on themselves for their well-being, these opponents of immigration allow themselves to be upset about immigrants and happily rely on the federal government to keep out foreigners—as a way of (supposedly) protecting their (or what they see as “our”) well-being, which it seems, is too fragile to deal with immigrants.

While protection from genuine (harmful) criminal activity is always a reasonable concern, there is little reason to believe immigrants are more likely to engage in such behavior than are than non-immigrants. (See this and this, for some discussion.) But leave that aside; it’s clearly not the only concern and its not an invocation of a nanny state (nor of moralism).

Many of those who oppose immigrants seem to think they are simply too different from “us” or are likely to be committed to a religion that would compete with Christianity in some problematic way. They think that their (or “our”) way of life must be protected; they may think our Christian (or, they might say, “Judeo-Christian”) values must be protected.

Finally, these opponents of immigration may think immigrants will take their jobs (or the jobs of other compatriots)—and thus want the government to keep out immigrants as a way of protecting “American jobs” (and salaries), and thus, their well-being and that of their fellow “real” Americans. Such people seem to fear they cannot compete with immigrants in the picture—either for the jobs they currently have but fear immigrants will take, or for other jobs they might apply for.

My point here is that those on the right adopting an anti-immigrant stance seem happy to rely on the federal government to guarantee or at least promote their welfare. They worry about the erosion of “the American way” and want the federal government to assist them in fending off that erosion. This is not being self-reliant. Self-reliance in this picture would be to think something like “well, things change; I will change along with them as needed.”

One possible response to what I’ve said would be something: “Look, one happy side-effect of keeping out immigrants is (we think) that we do better, but that isn’t why we want them kept out (or ‘limited to legal immigration’—but when the laws are made more and more constraining, there is no real difference). We don’t want them kept out to protect us as individuals, but to protect (as you said) the American way and Christian values. So it’s not about rejecting personal responsibility at all.”

If the response works, it shows that the criticism of rejecting self-reliance and welcoming the nanny state (that the right has traditionally criticized) is not a fair criticism of the anti-immigrant right. It would, though, leave the anti-immigrant right wholeheartedly endorsing a moralism of the sort that I have discussed in previous posts (for example, here). It leaves them committed to a goal of getting other people to do, believe, or live as they want, without any concern for those others as individuals or the rights they supposedly believe we all have. The goal is just to impose their preferred way of life on others. The desire some of us might have to marry or hire someone from another country is simply deemed unworthy.

In a nutshell, the anti-immigrant stance by those on the right commits them to either preferring a particular sort of nanny state that protects them from cultural changes, challenges to their religious beliefs, and competition for jobs OR its a disturbing moralism that demands legal assistance to protect the “moral fabric of society” where that “fabric” is really just their preferred way of life without those cultural changes, challenges to their religious beliefs, and increased competition for jobs. Stated that way, the two options seem not very different. The moralism is, after all, an insistence that the their desired way of life be imposed because they like it and the way of life it provides them–so the nanny state ought to protect it. It might be pitched in terms of what is good for society overall rather than what is good for some group of individuals, but that pitch is exceedingly weak. None of this should be acceptable to those advocating personal responsibility, self-reliance, and individualism.

*Note: Thanks to A.I. Cohen and J.P. Messina for comments on a draft of this post.

For more on immigration, see Bryan Caplan’s book and, very soon, Chandran Kukathas’s. (RCL earns commissions if you buy from these links; commissions support this site; we make no profit from them.)