• What is Freedom of Expression? II. A Civil Liberty


    In Part 1 I outlined a distinction between positive freedom and negative freedom, and argued that freedom of expression should be seen as a negative liberty.


    Within the idea of negative freedom of expression lies another distinction. Suppose while working in an office Luke, while in earshot of several colleagues expresses the view that gay people should be seen as outcasts. Now consider two scenarios. In the first, Luke is fired from his job, as his words express an abhorrent and intolerant view of a particular minority, which his employer deems harmful to the working environment (especially for those targeted by his opinion). This is, at least in some way a restriction on Luke’s negative freedom. There was an intervention to restrict something that he would have otherwise been free to do, i.e. voice his opinion at work. I will call this kind of freedom social freedom; freedom without any significant prohibitions. It is ‘social’ because it deals with the interactions and relations between individuals in society, without necessarily involving the state. In the second scenario, Luke is not only fired from his job, but also arrested for hate speech. Here, Luke lacks a kind of freedom that he possessed in the first scenario: the freedom to express that opinion without being punished for it by the state. I call this kind of freedom civil freedom.1


    That said, if the speaker is speaking or working on the behalf of the government, it might be proper to restrict what they are allowed to say. For instance, if we grant that a private company has the right to deny their employees the right to make certain statements while at work (such as espousing offensive opinions to clients), similarly the government has the right to restrict their employees in the same sort of way. I take it that in this context we are no longer talking about civil suppression of expression but rather social suppression, even though it is performed by the government. The government in this case might respond with disciplinary measures such as sacking the offending employee, but it would still be improper to bring legal sanctions against them.


    Just like with positive liberty, I do not think absolute social freedom is a defensible position. For instance, I think that Luke’s employer was justified in sacking him purely for the reason that he expressed that opinion. There is a discussion to be had about the desirable extent of social freedom (for example we might encourage people to listen to each other more than we already do), but that is not particularly relevant to arguments regarding freedom of expression in the ordinary sense. I do not believe that Luke should have been arrested merely for holding and stating that opinion. That, therefore is the character of ‘freedom’ that we are embracing with regards to expression: a negative, civil liberty.


    1 Note that by using the word ‘civil’ here I am not referring to ‘civil law’. By ‘civil liberty’ I mean free from criminal restrictions imposed by the state.

    Category: Freedom of Expression

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.