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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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1. No Neutrality: Hobbesian Constitutionalism in the Internet Age (James C. Foster)


1. No Neutrality: Hobbesian Constitutionalism in the Internet Age

James C. Foster

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

~ Abraham Lincoln to Congress, December 1, 1862

First Amendment theories do not exist in a vacuum. First Amendment conceptualizations reflect the social circumstances within which they are embedded. As the editors of this book emphasize in their Introduction, if free speech is not to be an arid abstraction it must be situated within a particular time and place. This insight is the primary point of departure for the contributors to this volume. Contextualizing various understandings of free speech underpins the several chapters of this book, an approach that also informs this chapter. In the present case, neo-Hobbesian tribalism colors free speech.

Our Republic is in crisis—along with its core principle, freedom of speech. Fueling this calamity is a pervasive tribalism, which is a potent combination of fear and hate, anger and distrust, combined with a zero-sum/in-group-out-group mentality. Our crisis is the 21st century version of Thomas Hobbes’ State of Nature. Hobbes returned to England in 1651, after taking refuge in France during the English Civil War (1642–1651). In his dedication to the English edition...

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