Speech Restrictions That Don't Much Affect the Autonomy of Speakers

Article excerpt


The sad occasion of Ed Baker's untimely death is perhaps a fitting reason to reflect on the speech of those who are no longer living. Most of what is worth reading was written by authors who have died. All of what is now worth reading will one day fall in the same category.

I take it none of us thinks such material is or should be less constitutionally protected than the writings of the living. I know of no court that has suggested any such thing. Yet the speech of authors who are now dead poses a difficulty for speaker-based free speech theories (or speaker-based components of broader theories).

Say the government were to ban a book written by a nowdead author: Aristotle, Machiavelli, Marx, Hitler, Orwell. Such a ban would have no effect on the author's autonomy.

It would not deny him an opportunity to "fully develop a complex mental world, identify its contents, evaluate them, and distinguish between those that are merely given and those one endorses." (1) It would not interfere with "the appropriate development and regulation of the [author's] self, and of [the author's] relation to others," (2) at least if "relation to others" means the relation of actual living human beings. It would not interfere with the author's "authority (or right) to make decisions about" himself. (3) Those authors are beyond the writ of governments.

What is wrong with such bans, it seems to me, is that they burden the rights of the living, not of the dead--of readers, not of authors. Some might identify, I suppose, some symbolic interference with the author's "self-expression," but in the absence of a living self such interference is metaphor, not reality.

Some might suggest that a few authors could be deterred from speaking during their lives by the fear that their influence will be legally blocked after their death, but that seems unlikely. Even those who think they write for the ages are unlikely to be much affected by the possibility that some government some time after their death might restrict their works.

Some might point to the rights of future "speakers," such as publishers or booksellers. But while the law rightly protects such rights to convey the speech of others, surely the real tragedy of a ban on Ed Baker's works--or on Aristotle's works--would not be that it will interfere with the speech of a future bookseller. And of course many works are made public through largely automated mechanisms such as Google Books or Hein-Online, whose operators may not even make any conscious choice about what to publish. It can't really be booksellers' rights that are chiefly at stake here.

Rather, once time removes the author from the realm of those who possess rights, what is left is the reader. Life, and the law, are for the living. And the reader's rights are entirely sufficient to provide the works of now-dead authors with full First Amendment protection.

Consider likewise the republication of a leaked document: an internal government report, a business's memo describing its plan to close plants, a business's investigation of whether its products make people sick, or a political advocacy group's long-term strategy for accomplishing its political goals. Let's call this the "pure leak republication" scenario. And consider alongside it the republication of a leaked document together with careful analysis and criticism of the document by the republisher, which we'll call the "speaker-supplemented leak republication" scenario.

Pure leak republication does not do much to advance speakers' autonomy, or their development as thinkers. In many cases, the original authors did not wish the documents to be released. (4) Whatever the value of the publication to listeners, it doesn't seem to be respectful of the authors' mental autonomy. Moreover, if the report was an internal corporate document, then under Ed's and Seana's own framework, the development of the report would not have involved sufficient "thinking" to justify full protection. …