- Can speech ‘silence’, if so should it be restricted?
Freedom of speech is almost universally endorsed in western-liberal countries. Literally, speech refers only to the communication of thoughts in spoken words but more widely interpreted the concept also includes publications, television and the like. The intuitive idea of how to promote free speech is to allow more speech. Therefore, proponents of free speech oppose regulation and restriction of speech others advocate e.g. on grounds of public morality. But what if speech (e.g. hate speech) itself prevents speech, what if speech ‘silences’ (the voice of the victims)? The following paper argues that speech can silence, in a way that amounts to a violation of others’ freedom of speech. The case will be made that under certain conditions – an important reservation – restriction is appropriate, that indeed freedom of speech is promoted by restricting speech, and that liberals of each facet ought to concede this.1 How speech may silence
“[T]he free speech of men [producing and consuming pornography] silences the free speech of women”2 by making it difficult for women to voice their opinions, or preventing their views from receiving a fair hearing, or causing what they say to be misunderstood. So argues C. MacKinnon in her argument for the prohibition of (certain forms of) pornography. One must not accept her specific claim and demand to recognise that speech can have a silencing dynamic in the sense that it can disable, weaken or discredit a would-be speaker. Speech may drown out the voice of the disadvantaged; it may make it impossible for marginalized groups to participate in public debate; it may deprive words, when they are spoken, of their authority; it may constrain comprehension and consideration of what the victims say. The probably most traceable example of such a dynamic is racist hate speech that threatens a minority, diminishes the victims’ self-esteem, possibly promotes a false construction of their identity on part of the audience and thus impedes their participation in debate.3 Obviously, these are empirical claims and their examination cannot and will not be the subject of this essay. The issue is that the restriction of speech that would feature such effects is opposed by some on grounds of the conceptual argument that these should not be regarded as ‘silencing’ in the sense that it amounts to a violation of freedom of speech. In the following I want to examine more exactly the claim, and objections to it, that speech can deprive of the freedom of speech and therefore, in particular, ought to be restricted (under certain conditions, cf. final section). Restricting speech for the sake of free Speech
Preliminary remark: Equality, and other values
Speech with the above mentioned effects is likely to affect also other values such as public order4 as well as, more importantly for liberals, the value of equality. To stick with the example, racist hate speech has the potential to instigating civil agitation (violating interests in public order), and denigrating the worth of both its victims and the groups to which these belong in others’ and possibly their own eyes (violating their right to equal protection). These are terrible effects, and one could argue that they are sufficient to restrict such speech. Nevertheless I will not focus on them in the following for three reasons. Firstly, they are not defining characteristics of ‘silencing’ speech which is the central subject of this paper; secondly, considerations in public order, morality and security and so on will not convince the liberal who attributes priority to free speech. Equality is insofar of greatest concern because it constitutes a defining value for many contemporary liberals; they are forced to choose between incommensurable commitments. A more traditional liberal may assert the priority of liberty over equality and...