CMC Magazine / January 1, 1996
A Plea to Ignore the Consequences of Free Speech
by Susan Dwyer
In their clearest forms, the public and philosophical debates about the permissible limits of free speech are cast in consequentialist terms. These consequentialist arguments are attractive: they are relatively simple, appeal to commonsense notions of harm and the like, and are readily expressed in sound bites. But on pragmatic and philosophical grounds, such arguments either for or against unrestricted free speech are bad arguments.
A primary function of an argument concerning free speech is the justification for a particular public policy. Most Western democracies hold a strong presumption that citizens ought to enjoy a fairly expansive legal right to free speech; and restrictions of that right inherit a substantial burden of proof.
Because empirical evidence of pornography's harms is inconclusive, consequentialist arguments for the restriction of pornography will largely be unsuccessful. In addition, the consequentilist defender of free speech inherits her own burden: to prove that long-term benefits of protecting free speech that outweigh any present and speculative future costs to equality.
Hence, in its consequentialist guise, speculation attends both sides of the debate, and effectively renders arguments of such kinds useless for policy purposes. The philosophical deficits of consequentialist arguments about free speech are harder to articulate. Advocates on both sides appear to believe a conflict between liberty and equality lies at the heart of the debate about free speech. However, there are reasons to think that this conflict is incoherent.
I propose a line of thought arguing for freedom of speech based on a non-consequentialist, or constitutive, defense of free speech. I argue that this view has some limitations as well as benefits and caution that technology doesn't ensure equality.
[Cavalier agrees with Dwyer]
Susan Dwyer (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She is the editor of The Problem of Pornography (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1995).
Copyright © 1996 by Susan Dwyer. All Rights Reserved.