All Commentary
Saturday, June 1, 1996

Speaking Freely: The Public Interest in Unfettered Speech

Government Action Often Hurts Those it Would

Mr. Carolan is executive editor of National Review.

Speaking Freely, written from a conservative-libertarian point of view, contains five medium-length essays about relatively contemporary First Amendment controversies: television violence (written by John Corry), indecency legislation (Doug Bandow), mandated children’s television time (Adam Thierer), limits on commercial speech (Daniel Troy), and the so-called Fairness Doctrine (E. Brandt Gustavson).

The essays are all well-written, contain interesting historical detail, and are explicitly designed in subject matter and argument to convince a conservative audience—not always sympathetic to free speech—to abandon statist solutions to social pathologies.

At the risk of over-rationalizing this issue, I might say that the argument for regulation of speech boils down to the false dilemma of the demagogue. How else will we “protect children”? Or, on the subject of commercial speech, “how else will we protect consumers?”

The idea that consumers can protect themselves, and parents can protect children, is often dismissed by those who fear the dark, incompetent side of human nature—or believe, in the words of a somewhat bourgeois and populist rhetoric that “parents [consumers] deserve all the help they can get.”

The fact that the government is often not helping, but hurting the very interests of those it seeks to “protect” is a strong theme here. For example, the vagueness of pro-children viewing standards might lead to the control of moral messages as “hate speech”—or the “fairness” of the federal doctrine might require rebuttals to every religious broadcasting message, thereby chilling religious speech.

Less emphasized but still here is the more abstract, deontological theme that regulation is simply a violation of an absolute right, or that what provides you with that extra layer of protection might violate the legitimate property and speech rights of others.

This leads me to wonder when the book will be written for conservatives defending hard-core pornography, or Internet messages on how to build atomic bombs. Speaking Freely is revealing, in that sense, for what it does not discuss as much as what it does. It is interesting, for example, to see well-known religious individuals like Mr. Bandow, and Mr. Gustavson (a religious broadcaster), arguing against content controls in their respective areas of interest, but leaving untouched the broader implications of their message.

In that sense I think the producers of this book should give conservatives a little more credit for powers of circumspection. The authors here are batting out the softballs thrown over the heart of the plate—granted, the kind of softballs that a lot of other conservatives and liberals have been missing terribly. There is no doubt that what is said here is instructive, eminently valuable, and thoroughly convincing.

But it seems there is a larger philosophical issue that is left alone, and must be addressed: Must speech by its nature degenerate and thus lead to increases in degenerate behavior? Is there a teleology to free speech? Will it lead in an evolutionary direction? I for one look forward to more powerful philosophical, metaphysical engagement between conservatives and libertarians on the subject of unfettered speech—a kind of investigation about the direction of unfettered culture that one might find, for example, in the writings of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce. We have seen too many instances, it seems to me, of practical political thinking running out of steam when there is not much else behind it.