Tuesday, July 04, 2017

What is free speech?

Free speech is impossible.

To be genuinely free, free speech must be free of all coercion, not just of coercion exercised directly by the state. If some non-state institution uses coercion, then either the state itself legitimizes the coercion, it which case the coercion is still state coercion, or the state does not have a monopoly on the exercise of coercion, and is not a state at all. Thus, if I say, "The sky is blue," and vigilantes beat me up without fear of state reprisal, then the state has coercively restricted my speech, so I do not have free speech.

But! Speech may itself be coercive. If I walk up to a bank teller and say, "Give me all your money, or I'll shoot you," I am coercing the teller (and the bank, its depositors, and its owners). There is a contradiction: if the state regulates this coercion-by-speech, we lack free speech; if it cannot, it is not a state at all. Worse yet, if I say, "Do not say that the sky is blue, or I'll shoot you," someone's free speech will be violated: either my own — I am prohibited for speaking thus — or the person I'm threatening, who fears to say that the sky is blue.

Indeed, we have broadened the definition of "speech" to communicative acts: if burning a flag is a speech act, then pointing a loaded pistol at someone — so long as I do not pull the trigger — is objectively a speech act. One might argue (sensibly) that threats are substantively different than other speech acts, but to restrict any speech for any reason, however sensible and reasonable, is still infringing on someone's freedom of speech.

The point of the above exercise is to emphasize that we are arguing not about whether or not we should have "free speech" but about the limits and boundaries of permissible and impermissible speech, what institutions actually set those limits, and how they go about setting them.

The question then becomes on what basis are we to determine the limits? As I work through the sources, I'm going to try and determine both where each source advocates the limits should be, and, more importantly, why those limits should be as they advocate.

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