What Is the "Culture of Free Speech"?
We are engaged right now in seemingly endless battles over free speech—yet few of these conflicts are destined ever to be hashed out in a courtroom.
It is fairly well established, for example, that there is no First Amendment right to force a social media platform to host your account if they don’t like what you have to say or how you’re saying it. A private school may fire a teacher, administrator or even the janitor for saying or doing something that incurs the disapproval of others. Doing so is within their legal right, even when it is not the right thing to do.
So, what we are really arguing about is not rights but right and wrong. We’re arguing about what has been called the “culture of free speech”—freedom of speech not as a legally protected right, but as a cultural norm. The culture of free speech is a presumption in favor of tolerance for a diversity of opinions and beliefs. It is the choice to forebear from firing, deplatforming or boycotting others whose views you find wrongheaded, on the conviction that entertaining such a diversity of views is necessary for finding the truth and for helping to nurture a vibrant and creative society.
Yet it is notoriously hard to define what exactly is covered by this culture of free speech and why we need it. Which ideas should be entertained and given an audience, and which, if any, are beyond the pale? How much tolerance or consideration do we have to show to ideas we disagree with or even find repugnant? And should the purveyors of unpopular ideas expect to incur social consequences for the offense their speech causes to others?
The culture of free speech is one of those ideas that we know we need but are not entirely sure how to define. In practice, we tend to regard it the way Justice Stewart famously regarded pornography: We know it when we see it.
Can we draw clearer lines? Should we even be trying?