Discourse and Democracy   /   Fall 2004   /    Articles

Social Ontology and Free Speech

John R. Searle

There is something very dissatisfying about most discussions of free speech. The philosophical grounds standardly given for free speech are hopelessly inadequate. In American history there are two main arguments for free speech. One is that God gave it to us, and that is the end of the discussion. The second is that free speech has a utilitarian value; it is useful on balance. Neither of these arguments is adequate in my view, and we ought to get a more adequate theoretical basis for our conviction that people should be granted freedom of speech. If the only justification for free speech is that it is advantageous to the public then it would not be justified in cases in which it certainly would not be advantageous to the public. And there are lots of such cases where free speech does not lead to utilitarian advantage. There are cases where, on balance, we would all be better off if the speaker had not spoken. But even in such cases, the speaker does not lose his right to free speech.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).