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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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Introduction: Why Free Speech Theory Matters (Helen J. Knowles and Brandon T. Metroka)


Introduction: Why Free Speech Theory Matters

Helen J. Knowles and Brandon T. Metroka

As David Gilmour’s iconic Pink Floyd song, “Lost For Words,” suggests, it is neither healthy nor productive to try and respond to the words and ideas with which one disagrees by developing a “tunnel vision” of “spite.”1 If we simply attempt to shut (or, perhaps, shout) down our opponents by labeling them as “wrong” or “fake,” we ultimately create an impoverished, unproductive, and undemocratic dialogue. This is because when we allow ourselves to become cocooned within a world of free speech defined by nothing more than speech on our terms, we rarely (if at all) stop to think (because we do not have to) about why we value our particular viewpoints or why we are free to hold and express them. Consequently, we believe we are at liberty to ignore the effects of our speech on those around us.

If we do stop to consider those effects, we will not be able to fully comprehend their origins and meanings unless we acknowledge the value of the competing perspectives. Indeed, invoking “free speech” as an authority for a preferred political position is a form of question begging, because it assumes that a rhetorical appeal to a value alone (here, free speech) somehow decides a particular issue. The contributors to this volume provide analyses of particular “free speech” conflicts with the specific goal of critically assessing why and how “free...

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