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Free Speech Theory

Understanding the Controversies

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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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Conclusion: It’s Still Complicated (Helen J. Knowles and Brandon T. Metroka)

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Conclusion: It’s Still Complicated

Helen J. Knowles and Brandon T. Metroka

Scenario #1—United States: That high school punk, the kid who lives just around the corner from you, the kid whose reputation precedes them, decides to fix a flag pole to the bed of their pickup truck, and fly a Confederate battle flag from it. The neighborhood consensus of opinion is that the kid has little (to no) understanding of the meaning of the flag, but knows it will “piss people off, so why not?”

Scenario #2—Great Britain: A highly regarded (by all that know her) writer, who frequently contributes to radio and television stories produced by the BBC, comments on one of her friend’s Facebook posts. She defends the rights of the LGBTQ community, but makes the additional observation that “gender identity” is problematic because it is a fact that one’s biological sex cannot be changed. The BBC fires her.

Scenario #3—Australia: A group of white students enters a facility on a university campus that is designated for the use of Indigenous students only. When asked if they are Indigenous, they reply no, and they are asked to leave, which they subsequently do. Afterwards, another student posts a comment on social media referring to the person in charge of the unit as a n****r.

These are real-world manifestations of expressive freedom, examples of the controversies this freedom generates around the globe. However, they...

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