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Free Speech Theory

Understanding the Controversies


Edited By Helen J. Knowles and Brandon T. Metroka

The rallying cry of "Free speech!" has long served as a touchstone for liberals and conservatives, alike, engaged in political polarization conflict and discourse. The democratization of media and the feverish pitch of political polarization, however, have contributed to the weaponization of free expression. From Colin Kaepernick to "fake news," boycotts of partisan television programming to removals of Confederate monuments, internet neutrality to the silencing of college professors and all points between, citizens and pundits all too frequently wield the slogan of "Free speech!" as the sword and shield of political discourse. Oftentimes, ironically they do so with little regard for the views of their opponents. As a result, society risks trading a substantive value for an empty slogan or, far worse, blind authority.To rediscover the underlying assumptions and social values served by free expression, and to move current controversies beyond rhetorical flourishes, Helen J. Knowles and Brandon T. Metroka assemble an impressive group of legal and political scholars to address one overarching question: "Why should we value free speech?" Through analyses of several recent controversies invoking concerns for free expression, the contributors to this volume make complex political theory accessible, informative, and entertaining. Beginning with internet neutrality and ending with an overview of developing free expression controversies in comparable western democracies, experts reestablish the link between free expression and the underlying values it may serve. In doing so, this volume unearths values previously unexamined in our modern—but increasingly impoverished and bitter—political discourse.

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“Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour.”1 Without our dedicated contributors, this volume would not exist. Just like the proverb suggests, they have given this book life by providing us with an eclectic and engaging variety of perspectives on using theories of expressive freedom to understand contemporary free speech controversies. There is no one (right or wrong) way to approach the subject, and the chapters that follow reflect that belief. They do not obey a specific pattern or appropriate one single method of organization, and they do not apply the same theories in the same manner. This, we believe, is one of the strengths of this book. The diversity of the chapters embraces and reflects the truth of Archie Bland’s words, the words of the epigraph with which we open this book: “Practical freedom of speech, graduate-level freedom of speech, is not a black-and-white issue, not just a matter of misquoting Voltaire; it is a subtly calibrated scale. It involves questions about social context, and discretion.”2 Our contributors ask many questions, and provide some theory-grounded answers, all of which take social context and discretion very seriously. We are exceptionally grateful for their hard work.

The gratitude of the editors and contributors alike extends to Nick Stubba and Linda Tettamant for the work they undertook for us. Nick is a very talented SUNY Oswego alumnus (‘19) who did the detailed, laborious, and absolutely essential work (all while completing his undergraduate...

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