Free Speech

Everyone loves freedom of speech when he is thinking of the ideas he would like to hear. But that, of course, proves nothing.

Whatever one thinks of the ultimate validity or political importance of the right to free speech, there is an ironclad condition that must be understood as essential to the concept, and no free speech defense which ignores or seeks to limit this condition can amount to anything but a self-contradiction.

Freedom of speech means nothing if not the ability to speak freely. To speak freely means nothing if not the ability to speak about topics, or in contexts, where one’s ability to speak might plausibly be constrained or thwarted, which is to say topics or contexts which might, in principle, put one at odds with the prevailing views of the day, or more specifically the preferred views of the presiding authorities of the day (i.e., those who, in theory, would have the official power to constrain or thwart private speech). Thus, to object, on principle, to freedom of speech in the political realm implies not merely a distaste for alternative or unorthodox opinions regarding certain topics or in certain contexts — everyone objects to certain opinions, and must do so in order to qualify as a thinking being — but rather a belief that some empowered figure or institution ought to have the legal authority to stifle such alternative or unorthodox opinions.

Anyone who pretends to favor free speech “in general,” or “in principle,” but who “merely” objects to certain opinions being aired freely, is a hypocrite or dissembler, since the entire meaning of free speech, as a political concept — as a right — pertains to the matter of protecting precisely those “certain opinions” that you do not like. Free speech construed, implicitly or explicitly, as a protection only for beliefs that you approve of, or at least find unobjectionable, is nothing but another variation on the authoritarian corruption of equality that Orwell parodies in Animal Farm with the commandment addendum, “but some animals are more equal than others.”

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