The Right to Free Speech and the Value of Speaking Freely

Thursday October 29, 2020 at 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM CT


The First Amendment to the United States Constitution commits our government to respecting the right to freedom of speech. But many of today’s controversies about “free speech” aren’t about this right and arguably aren’t about something to which anyone has a right. Instead they are about the range of opinions that people and organizations ought to be willing to tolerate from those with whom they associate. Such controversies concern, for example, university or corporate speech codes, the editorial policies of publications, the content policies of social media companies, and who (if anyone) ought to be “canceled” (i.e. boycotted, black-listed, or ostracized). We might say that these controversies are about the value of people being able to “speak freely,” where what they are free from is social (rather than legal or political) consequences, and where this freedom is seen as one of several competing values, rather than as an inalienable right. Yet there is a general sense that this value is closely connected to the constitutionally protected right to free speech and the value and the right are often conflated in argument. 

This talk seeks to shed light on the relation between the right and the value. Issues addressed include: the facts that give rise to the value, the role of the value in grounding the right, the role of the right in determining how the value can be achieved, and some additional considerations that organizations should bear in mind when considering how to achieve the value in contexts where alternative policies are equally compatible with the right.