The Politics of Law: A Progressive Critique

By David Kairys | Go to book overview

DAVID KAIRYS


8
FREEDOM OF SPEECH

The basic principle that individuals and groups are free to express different and unpopular views without prior restraint or punishment has gained a unique acceptance in the United States, for which we are rightly proud. It is a necessary element of any free and democratic society, indispensable to both the individual and society generally. Without freedom of expression, the individual is not truly free and cannot be an active participant or maintain self-respect and dignity while functioning with others as part of society. Expression is not just something people do; it is, in the deepest sense, an integral part of what people are. Society cannot effectively resolve conflict or competing demands and interests, generate new ideas, function democratically, or maintain stability unless individuals are free to express themselves. The downside of free speech is that on occasion people are exposed to ideas that they find stupid, upsetting, or offensive, but this is a minimal price--and sometimes those very same ideas later gain widespread acceptance.

While the principle is sound, free speech means much more than this in American politics and culture. Free speech is often discussed as if it defined a political or economic system rather than a series of rules prohibiting governmental limits on individual expression. It is what makes us good, and better than other countries and people. Freedom of speech is at the core of our national identity.

Yet the American celebration of free speech is unsettling, contradictory, and quite complex. The invocation of free speech gains wide acceptance when formulated generally and abstracted from current controversies or when aimed at repressive practices in other countries. But specific applications in the United States are regularly greeted with contempt, evident in the recurring controversies over flag burning, demonstrations by neo-Nazis, and, most recently, "indecency" on the Internet. There is

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