Friday, February 5, 2021

On Free Speech Absolutism

I'd like to recommend to your attention an article by Josh Hammer that, in my view, addresses important issues regarding the common appeal by conservatives to what Hammer refers to as "free speech absolutism." A hint of what he's talking about can be seen from the picture that is at the top of the article. It features Marjorie Taylor Greene wearing a black mask with the red lettering: Free Speech. A lot has been written about MTG and this whole issue, but I find Hammer's article by far the most thoughtful, because it goes beyond the easy issue of liberal hypocrisy.

In particular I draw your attention to the distinction that Hammer makes between "procedure" and "substance", which is the same distinction that Cassander raised in a different context today. To be clear, Hammer believes the action taken against MTG by the Dem House was wrong. His argument is that even if we oppose those actions, we should be cautious of failing to distinguish "liberal procedure"--appeals to Free Speech as a constitutional right (in most instances)--from the "moral limitations of the ... underlying substance" of what is being said.

Here's the link:

The Limits of ‘Free Speech’

But the fact that Marjorie Taylor Greene can so effortlessly retreat to the comparatively safe terrain of "free speech" should concern conservatives.

And here are a few excerpts--but I urge you to read and consider the entire article:

Greene ... followed in the footsteps of many others on the Right who respond to a domineering and increasingly illiberal ruling class with rote proceduralist appeals to free speech ...

On the merits, it is a mistake to strip Greene, who has previously flirted with the QAnon conspiracy theory and has voiced numerous other ludicrous beliefs, of all House committee assignments. ...

But the fact that Greene—an erstwhile QAnon adherent, 9/11 “truther,” and believer that the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting was a “false flag” operation—can so effortlessly retreat to the comparatively safe terrain of “free speech” ought to concern conservatives. It is a reminder of the inherent moral limitations of appeals to liberal procedure in lieu of underlying substance.

... conservatives would be making a tactical error if they were to lionize Greene and like-minded fringe figures as valiant martyrs for “free speech” ideals.

Just as Ethics and Public Policy Center President Ryan T. Anderson recently argued in the Wall Street Journal that “religious liberty isn’t enough,” so, too, is “free speech” perhaps necessary but ultimately insufficient as a tool with which to implore elites to grant conservatives basic societal legitimacy. Every argument that begins and ends with cries of “free speech,” whether in opposition to the latest noxious manifestation of “cancel culture” or censorious Big Tech account ban, is necessarily an argument eschewing any focus on underlying claims to justice or truth.

This is what Hammer means by Free Speech "proceduralism" that ignores the underlying moral substance. This, in a nutshell, is the theoretical, philosophical, weakness of the Classical Liberal ideology of "rights" over Natural Law--as we've discussed, especially, with reference to the thought of Patrick Deneen.

... But such an intense focus on free speech as an intrinsic end ... is to engage in the very sort of moral relativism that conservatives rightfully decry.

Worse, it misunderstands the historical understanding of free speech, which was not that of an intrinsic good unto itself but instead that of a merely convenient instrumentality in pursuit of genuine truth and knowledge. Conservatives who are confident in their convictions should not be afraid to defend their substantive beliefs, ..., without pleading to be left alone due solely to pluralistic commitments to religion or speech.


Marjorie Taylor Greene should not have been formally punished by either the current House Republican minority or Democratic majority for her previous beliefs, no matter how noxious they may be. But it is imperative that we understand such an appeal for lenity as prudence—not myopic free speech absolutism.

While we can question whether those who have criticized the jihad against MTG actually do fall into the errors that Hammer decries, it's unquestionably best to have a very clear understanding of what we really stand for--and why--when we go into these types of disputes.


  1. Lou Dobbs’s Show Is Canceled by Fox Business
    Mr. Dobbs, a loyal supporter of former President Donald J. Trump, is named in a lawsuit by the election technology company Smartmatic against the Fox Corporation and two other Fox anchors.

    Lou Dobbs has been on Fox Business. Why do I think Paul Ryan is smirking somewhere?

  2. From that NYT article on Lou Dobbs’s firing:

    Fox Business has canceled “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” the weekday show hosted by one of former President Donald J. Trump’s most loyal media supporters that became a frequent clearinghouse for baseless theories of electoral fraud in the weeks after Mr. Trump lost the 2020 presidential race.

    The end of Mr. Dobbs’s decade-long tenure as an afternoon mainstay of the network came a day after a defamation lawsuit was filed by the election technology company Smartmatic against Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corporation and Fox News. The suit, which seeks damages of at least $2.7 billion, named Mr. Dobbs as an individual defendant, along with two other Fox anchors, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro.

  3. Show me a corporation afraid of lawsuits, I show you a weak corporation (see the shakedown of tobacco companies).

    1. TD, could have been just an excuse to dump Dodds. Maria Bartiromo and Judge Jeannine also named in the lawsuit and no mention of their having been fired by Fox/FBN.

  4. Can't agree with Hammer on this argument.

    1. Sounds like the same old "conservative" argument that we have to follow the rules for high-class gentlemen because we are "above that" and they can be thugs.

    2. Free speech really is under attack right now-- look at all the things you can't say: A man can never become a woman. Can't say that. Trans "women" don't belong in women's bathrooms, prisons or sports. Can't say that. Some demographics commit more crimes. Can't say that. Children need fathers. Can't say that.

    1. Your comment is nothing but a parody of what Hammer is actually saying--and which I quote. Thanks for not reading before writing.

    2. See what I mean? Another thing I can't say lest I become a "parody" and prove I "didn't read before writing".

      You see, Mark, I didn't attack you, I merely disagreed. Politely, I thought. But you had to attack me.

      I think you just proved my point

    3. See what I mean: You disagreed ignorantly. And yes, you just proved MY point.

  5. On how they are now casting Dobbs’s firing in mediaspeak (Reuters article published at Epoch Times). How they are getting around firing Dobbs and not firing Bartiromo and Pirro, also named defendants in the Smartmatic lawsuit:

    Fox said the move to end Dobbs’ show had been in the works before the lawsuit as part of a revamp following the November 2020 presidential election in which Republican Trump was defeated by Democrat Joe Biden.

    “As we said in October, Fox News Media regularly considers programming changes and plans have been in place to launch new formats as appropriate post-election, including on Fox Business,” a Fox News spokesperson said. “This is part of those planned changes.”

    On the Smartmatic lawsuit, Fox said on Thursday the network was “proud of our 2020 election coverage and will vigorously defend this meritless lawsuit in court.”