Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Formal Defense of Free Speech

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of The Clerk as an institution. Please join The Clerk on April 19th at 7:30pm in the DC Basement as we host Journalists and alumni from FIRE, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and administration officials for a panel on journalism, free speech and the Honor Code. 

There has been much debate recently about to what extent the Haverford community is allowed to enforce communal ethics versus the protections granted to individuals by the right to free speech. I write now to address two points brought up by this discussion. First: that our ability to enforce our community views is predicated on the freedom of speech within our community, and thus free speech is not to be understood as an individual right, but as a necessity of a democratic society. Second: I have noticed a general disagreement about what counts as speech in the context of this debate, and would like to propose a test for what constitutes speech.

In order to understand what I mean by my first point we need to address a very important question: What gives a person or a community the right to enforce the conclusions of their ethical views? The answer to this is strikingly simple: Because they are right, or at least think that they are. After all, if you believe that murder is wrong, then it is only right that you should stop someone from committing murder.

But individuals and society don’t always hold correct ethical views. There was a time when slavery was viewed as morally correct, after all. This means that simply holding an ethical view is insufficient to be able to say that it is correct with any degree of certainty.

So in order to enforce our ethical views, we need to have a way to be certain that the views we enforce are more like the view that murder is wrong than the view that slavery is right. In other words, we need a truth-determining process. In democratic communities, especially here at Haverford, this process takes the form of public discourse, such Canada’s article and the responses it has caused (this piece included).

But, in order for public discourse to properly act as a truth-determining process, certain requirements must be met. I am concerned right now with only one of those requirements: (Almost) any statement must be presentable within that discourse. This is a requirement because, unless a statement can be presented, its effect on public views cannot be known, nor can its validity.

A statement cannot even be allowed once and then banned afterwards under the assumption that its validity remains the same. After all, that assumption rests on the beliefs that (a) our initial truth-determination was accurate, and (b) nothing has changed about the validity of the claim since it was last allowed. But we have no way of knowing that these beliefs are true, and thus that we can trust our truth-determining process, unless we either allow the initial statement (thus unbanning it) or take them to be true in order to prove them, making the argument circular.

As long as we allow free speech, we can say that these statements are wrong. I am certain, for example, that the statement “racism is right” is terrible and wrong. But I can only hold that certainty as long as I have a valid truth-determining process, and in order to do that, I have to allow that statement to be asserted, no matter how reprehensible it is. If I ban it, I cannot be certain that I am right to do so, and thus lose the ability to ban it. Thus free speech must prevail.

This is not to say that any reaction to these claims is unacceptable. If someone told me that they thought racism was acceptable, that would color my opinion of them in a very negative manner. However, when I lower my opinion of an individual, I don’t do so with the intent of punishing them or otherwise trying to prevent them from making these statements. Any attempt I would make to convince them would be founded in reason, rather than in coercion or force.

Now that we have established the importance of the freedom of speech from an epistemological perspective, it is important to determine with greater precision what is meant by speech. One might say (as some of the respondents to Canada’s piece have) that, for example, blackface or slurs don’t carry meaning, and are thus not protected under this argument. However, a number of actions which do not carry traditional meaning seem like they should be protected speech. Speech is more than just semantically valid statements. We recognize both the flying and burning of a flag as forms of speech, for example, yet no one could call the flying of a flag “true” or “false” in the same way someone could say that the statement “human rights are universal” is true.

To help ameliorate this confusion, I would like to propose a test for what should be considered speech. The purpose of speech is to transfer a concept of some sort from one person or group of people to some other person or group. Thus if speech lacks a recipient it is ineffectual. This means that if an action would have no effect if no one was aware of it, then that action serves only to convey information, and is therefore a form of speech. If I call you a jerk and everyone ignores me, nothing happens. Thus calling you a jerk is a form of speech. If I shoot you and everyone ignores it, you die, and so shooting someone is not a form of speech and can (and should) be banned.

Similarly, if someone says “racism is ok,” and everyone ignores them, their statement has no effect, same with someone burning a flag or writing to the Clerk. Thus these all exhibit speech-like qualities, and can be considered speech. Note that it is not important whether or not the speech is actually ignored. All that is required is that, if it was ignored, it would have no impact, as this is a test to determine what counts as speech, rather than whether the action has an impact or not.

Finally, I would like to address one of the few cases where speech can be prohibited: Untrue statements of fact (whether lies or claims actually believed by the speaker). Untrue statements of fact can be prohibited because there is a more fundamental truth-determining process that can be applied to analyze the statements. In the case of the statement “global warming is a hoax,” the process is the scientific method, which I believe is more fundamental than public discourse, since if the two processes disagree, I’d stand with the scientific method. Similarly, yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre (when there is no fire) is making an implicit claim that “there is a fire in the vicinity, and as such we should probably leave now,” which is scientifically (or rather, empirically) false, and thus can be prohibited. This form of speech is not the only one that can be prohibited; however, an exhaustive list would be beyond the scope of this letter. I include this example to show how arguments against certain forms of speech can be constructed within this framework.

Now, that is not to say that scientifically inaccurate statements can be dismissed at all levels: They must be presentable in scientific circumstances. Where they will of course be disproven or similarly dismissed. This is no different than what should happen to political or philosophical claims such as “racism is ok” that are offered at the political level: They should be suggestible, even if they are easily dismissible.

In summary, freedom of speech does not arise from a right of individuals, but as a necessity of the process by which communities like ours determine what is true and false, and thus become capable of enforcing the conclusions of those views. Therefore, arguing that free speech should be curtailed to protect the wellbeing of other community members, even though the honor code may require it, is missing the fundamental importance that freedom of speech holds for communities like Haverford.