Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Sep 23, 2014 in Books, Debate, Politics, Skepticism | 0 comments

Greg Lukianoff’s Freedom from Speech

I’ve just finished reading Freedom from Speech, by Greg Lukianoff. I recommend this book highly – it’s refreshing to read a defence of free speech that relates to the idea as a wider cultural ideal, not just a restriction on government power. This means not attempting to suppress unwelcome or offensive speech through non-government means such as supporting draconian speech codes on university campuses and in places of employment, campaigning to get people fired for their speech, or literally shouting individuals down.

I should acknowledge that freedom from government censorship is a relatively simple idea, whereas potential paradoxes could arise if, for example, we requested that people not sign petitions calling for opponents or wrongdoers (wrongspeakers?) to be dismissed from their employment. If I do the latter, isn’t that also an exercise of free speech?

It may be, in a sense, but the point isn’t that you or I should be prevented by law from signing petitions; it’s that we can all exercise some voluntary restraint in how much we attempt to punish and deter speech that we dislike, as opposed to countering it with speech of our own.

I hope to write more about such issues in the future. Meanwhile, here’s a sample from Lukianoff’s book where he spells out that the idea of freedom of speech is not (in the US context) just about the First Amendment – they “are not the same thing”:

While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press as they relate to duties of the state and state power, freedom of speech is a far broader idea that includes additional cultural values. These values incorporate healthy intellectual habits, such as giving the other side a fair hearing, reserving judgment, tolerating opinions that offend or anger us, believing that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion, and recognizing that even people whose points of view we find repugnant might be (at least partially) right.

Read the rest of the book for more, with much detail.

PS. Only one phrase bothers me in the above quote – and only slightly. There are certain contexts where I’d resist the claim that we are all entitled to our own opinions. In those contexts, I’d say, “No you’re not.” For example, you’re not entitled to waste everyone’s time by expressing your support for creation science in a biology class. You can probably think of other examples where there are senses in which we’re not entitled to express and maintain our own opinions on factual matters.

Still, that is surely not Lukianoff’s point. I most certainly should be able to express a scientifically ignorant opinion without fear of being fired by my employer (who, let us say, has not employed me as a biologist or a biology teacher). The penalty for having a false belief on a matter of settled fact is that you are wrong – and perhaps you are exposed as ignorant or unreasonable. You should not have some further social punishment inflicted on you, such as having to endure efforts to destroy your livelihood.