Freedom of Speech Resources


Questioning Free Speech

Socrates 470/469 – 399 BC
Plato 428/427 or 424/423 – 348/347 BC
Xenophon 430–354 B

Socratic Political Philosophy

The proper place of speech, or reason, in the political community became for the first time a pressing theoretical question and political issue with the life and death of Socrates. Socrates departed from the tradition of philosophy that preceded him by, among other things, his decision to investigate moral and political questions by questioning publicly and privately the opinions of his unphilosophic contemporaries. His public questioning of received opinion about virtue and citizenship led to his prosecution by his home city of Athens on charges of impiety and ultimately to his execution. The defense he gave in the face of these charges, memorialized in the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, may not have saved his life, but it helped to secure the privileged place of science or philosophy in the ancient regime and thereafter in the Western world.

Aristotle 384-322 BC
Born in Stagira, Ancient Macedonia

Aristotle’s Political Science

Though Plato was the first to elaborate a Socratic philosophy of politics, his student Aristotle was the first to articulate a practically-oriented political science, meant to be of use to legislators, statesmen, and citizens. Like his teachers, Aristotle did much to promote philosophy as an ally to the city and a guide for political action, and thereby not only encouraged toleration of philosophy but established it as a crucial basis of authority throughout the Western world. Yet despite the importance of reason or speech in Aristotle's political teaching, he did not advance any theory or argument for freedom of speech. Moreover, his argument that the city has supreme authority over all things suggests that there is no natural limit to political authority that might carve out any specific "rights," such as the right to free speech.

The Free Press, 1993
Cass Sunstein, born 1954

Cass Sunstein: Democracy and the Problem of Free Speech

In this influential book, legal scholar Cass Sunstein defends a view of freedom of expression based on the principle of "government by discussion." Like Meiklejohn, Sunstein sees the purpose of the freedom of speech and press clauses of the First Amendment not as protecting individual liberty, but as making possible deliberative democracy. Unlike Meiklejohn, however, Sunstein's view of the requirements of democracy calls for a radical redrawing of the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech. Where Meiklejohn advocated a more libertarian view of First Amendment protections, Sunstein thought that there should be more regulation of speech in order to correct the distortions of the public voice that certain kinds of speech can produce.

Harvard University Press, 1993
Catharine MacKinnon, born 1946

Catherine MacKinnon: Only Words

Catharine MacKinnon is an influential feminist legal scholar and activist, whose work has focused largely on sexual harassment and pornography. MacKinnon's famous book on pornography and freedom of speech, Only Words, argues that the First Amendment has been unreasonably applied to justify the pornography industry's violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection guarantee. MacKinnon argues that the subordination of women depicted in pornography contributes to and is even inseparable from the fact of women's subordination in society as a whole. Thus, like Waldron and Sunstein, MacKinnon extends the harm principle to include much broader and subtler forms of social harm than those recognized by classical liberalism.

Oxford University Press, 1994
Stanley Fish, born 1938

Stanley Fish: There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech (…and it’s a good thing too)

Stanley Fish's controversial book, There's No Such Thing as Free Speech (...and it's a good thing too), offers a powerful critique of the very idea of freedom of speech. He rejects, in the first place, the premise that speech is distinguishable from action or conduct, and argues that the practical concerns bound up with speech always bring with them some kind of constraint on speech. In other words, no one would really be willing to tolerate all forms of speech. He concludes that all arguments about freedom of speech are arguments that seek to replace one broadly accepted system of constraints on speech with another.

Harvard University Press, 2012
Jeremy Waldron, born 1953

Jeremy Waldron: The Harm in Hate Speech

In his controversial and influential book, The Harm in Hate Speech, Jeremy Waldron questions the United States' stubborn refusal to regulate offensive speech. Waldron's argument suggests that there is a serious difficulty in the "harm principle" -- John Stuart Mill's distinction between actual harm and mere speech or opinion -- by focusing on the less tangible, but no less significant, harm that offensive speech can produce. In particular, Waldron emphasizes the damage that hate speech can do to democratic society by undermining citizens' sense of dignity and assurance of security under law.