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. 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 continue embrace the constitutional free speech 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 early Protestants 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.