Critical Thinking as Productive Questions

This post is a collaborative effort by Cameron King and Neil Browne.

1.       What is the optimal frame for discussing free speech:  When should MY speech be limited?  OR  Does the  speech in question contribute to CIVIC debate?

2.    To what extent does a speaker bear responsibility for the negative effects of her speech?

3.       Is there defensible middle ground when discussing freedom of speech between the cult of the individual and utter deference to community needs?  

None of us is eager to have restrictions placed on his speech. A state guided by fear of speech handcuffs personal and social development.


Communities depend on speech to inspire, forewarn, and provoke reflection. Some speech contributes to meeting those needs. Some does not.  Those who want their speech heard bear an obligation to explain why we would benefit from hearing the speech act. What would it mean to say that we possess a right to make any noise we choose?

  Keep it free so that ___________________?  In other words, statements of conclusion by themselves do not jog or challenge the mind.

Keep it free so that ___________________?  In other words, statements of conclusion by themselves do not jog or challenge the mind.

It is a bogus and misleading response to these tensions to proclaim the relativist's mantra: " who's to say?" Collective judgment may be a crippled pony, but it is the only worthy steed in the stable. We apply that method in many domains and will continue to do so. For all who doubt the efficacy of such a method (And we all should.), searching for avenues for improving human judgment makes so much more sense than acting as if our collective reflections are always and ever hopeless.

There is much to be gained from granting huge space to permitting each of us to say whatever comes to mind. What is so wrong with offending someone?  Are we to be enslaved in our behavior by the most sensitive person in our community?  If civic debate must occur only within a sphere of fragile sensitivities, then full-throated public debate is a waste of time anyway. Can we not agree that what we want to hear is not necessarily what we need to hear? 

This embrace of the personal as trumping the social encourages our proclivity for discussing freedom of speech as if the individual is the basic unit of analysis for all social decision-making. But our behavior is interdependent. As Mary Ann Glendon argues so convincingly in Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse,  the fascination with personal rights creates a blindness to corresponding responsibilities to the community.   

Once we accept the idea that speech is a social act, we make an important move away from "I should be able to say whatever I wish to say." Now the question becomes (1) does the speech I have in mind have a reasonable chance of stimulating additional thought and action addressing a problem faced by our community? and (2) does the speech create a clear danger to the physical harm of others?  We intentionally stayed away from psychological harm, not because we think it is not real, but more because we are troubled by the difficulty of substantiating that harm. You can fill a courtroom with those who say psychological harm occurred in a particular scenario. But if the defendant has enough money, a similar cadre of experts will testify that no such harm occurred.

We might wonder whether a speaker should be regarded as responsible for harm caused by her speech. Here probability of harm and the consequent attribution of a duty to be aware of such harm would seem to us to be the basis for additional thinking about this important question.

1..  Should religious belief be given special status when discussing the extent of freedom of speech. Recent evolution of French law for example has taken a relatively libertarian attitude toward defending an individual's right to speak, but "blasphemy" defined as disrespectful speech toward those who hold particular religious beliefs was denounced as violative of community welfare.

2.  Should the intent of a speech act affect the legal responsibility for any harm caused by the speech?

3.  How has compassion for those potentially harmed by speech muddled or improved our appreciation for the virtues of free speech?



AuthorM Neil Browne