Truth, Autonomy, and Speech: Feminist Theory and the First Amendment

Truth, Autonomy, and Speech: Feminist Theory and the First Amendment

Truth, Autonomy, and Speech: Feminist Theory and the First Amendment

Truth, Autonomy, and Speech: Feminist Theory and the First Amendment


Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Titles 2005 Winner

Amidst the vast array of literature on the First Amendment, it is rare to hear a fresh voice speak about the First Amendment, but in Truth, Autonomy, and Speech , Susan H. Williams presents a strikingly original interpretation and defense of the First Amendment, written from a feminist perspective. Drawing on work from several disciplines including law, political theory, philosophy, and anthropology the book develops alternative accounts of truth and autonomy as the foundations for freedom of expression. Building on feminist understandings of self and the social world, Williams argues that both truth and autonomy are fundamentally relational.

With great clarity and insight, Williams demonstrates that speech is the means by which we create rather than discover truth and the primary mechanism through which we tell the stories that constitute our autonomy. She examines several controversial issues in the law of free speech including campaign finance reform, the public forum doctrine, and symbolic speech and concludes that the legal doctrine through which we interpret and apply the First Amendment should be organized to protect speech that serves the purposes of truth and autonomy.


There are certain aspects of law—particularly constitutional law—that play a significant role in our cultural imagination. Regardless of whether or not these legal doctrines make much difference in terms of deciding cases or structuring legal relations, they make an enormous difference in the way we understand ourselves and our relationships to each other and to our government. They matter to us deeply because they represent our deepest commitments and capture our deepest fears. The First Amendment's protection for freedom of speech is one of these cultural icons.

Freedom of speech is an ideal that is close to the hearts of many Americans. It is connected to the hopes and dreams that shape our national identity, including individualism, progress, and liberty. But our commitment to freedom of speech presently rests on shaky foundations. We are using our free speech principle not so much to pursue our dreams as to evade our nightmares. We have justified freedom of speech by reference to particular ideas of truth and individual autonomy. Those ideas, however, are siren songs that lead us to sacrifice other values in our lives in the pursuit of an illusion of safety and certainty that we can never attain. We must reimagine truth and autonomy so that they can become vehicles for the hopes and dreams of an age that must live without such certainty. Through a critical examination and reconstruction of the justifications for free speech, this book will explore this corner of our cultural landscape and offer a vision for its renewal.

In order to unravel the cultural meanings of the First Amendment, it is helpful to examine the justifications that have been offered for our extraordinary protection for freedom of speech. Part i: Foundations sketches the architecture of these justifications. Chapter 1 outlines two of the most common and respected of such frameworks: the truth theory and the autonomy theory. In its simplest form, the truth theory asserts that freedom . . .

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