Outstanding piece by Anita Bernstein (Brooklyn) in the Pace Law Review about something that so-called free speech absolutists too often forget: that abuse and harassment actually silence speech, and that if we care about speech we ought to care about the speech that abuse silences.
The article can be downloaded here, and here is the abstract:
Owen Fiss focused on “the robustness of public debate” to conclude on his last page: “The autonomy protected by the First Amendment and rightly enjoyed by individuals and the press is not an end in itself, as it might be in some moral code, but is rather a means to further the democratic values underlying the Bill of Rights.”
This article embraces the same values but more conservatively. Whereas Fiss defended state-sponsored coercion, I leave the government mostly outside the descriptions and arguments presented here. Scholars have sought to apply the law—of crimes, torts, intellectual property, and statutory allotments and immunities—as remedies for online abuse and harassment. A few states have modified their penal codes in this direction. I applaud many of these innovations but do not rely on them. They can be rejected for purposes of the thesis that I sketch in these pages.
Like writings that come before it, this article challenges the chestnut that freedom comes at the expense of another progressive good. Equality, to some writers; antisubordination, to others; “civil rights” also serves. In contending that free speech advances and supports these progressive goals, I step into big footprints—not just those of Owen Fiss but before him, inter alia, Harry Kalven, who argued when the sixties revolution was young that white speakers ought to thank “the Negro” and his civil rights struggle for enlargement of their First Amendment rights delivered to them by the Supreme Court. But my connection to free speech is more literal than what these great precedent-writings teach. Abuse and harassment pull valuable words out of the marketplace of ideas, I argue. They lessen the discourse.
Also following in the path of other writings, this article notes a few higher stakes present in online speech as contrasted with its lower-tech antecedents. Electronic discourse adds anonymity, amplification, and permanence; within this medium, these conditions reinforce each other. Think of a rock thick and opaque enough to hide behind, durable enough to intimidate, heavy enough to inflict a real blow.
Don’t stop there. Think also of a rock’s majesty and beauty. Opacity, durability, and weight are strengths as well as dangers. In this article, I advocate measures against abuse and harassment because (not “even though”) I cherish free speech.
Project for a future post, or perhaps an article: why the term “free speech absolutist” is incoherent, and misleading, and also just kind of dumb. I’m with Martha Nussbaum that no one is really a free speech absolutist. So at a minimum we need a more accurate description of those who call themselves free speech absolutists.