• What is Freedom of Expression? I. A Negative Liberty


    My motivation for a series on free speech is that I see the term being used in a variety of ways; usually all rather confused. ‘Free speech’ as I understand it (and the sort I want to vigorously defend) is the idea protected by the First Amendment, and it is the thing violated by these absurd convictions. These next few posts will provide a definition of free expression that I think is a defensible one. I will then write a series arguing in favour of it.


    Freedom of expression is a negative liberty


    Consider two examples:


    1. Susan, a republican, believes that the monarchy should be abolished. As part of her efforts to turn others against the idea of having a monarchy, she criticises the reigning monarch as being a drain on public finances. She publishes this claim on her website. She is then ordered by the state to take down the claim from her website, and pay a fine as punishment.
    2. Andrew believes that immigration is ‘out of control’, and wishes to express this thought in order to try to convince others. He demands that, in the spirit of democracy, the state should ensure that he is given a slot on public television, so that this opinion is adequately represented and disseminated. The state refuses to act on his demands.


    In both cases the ‘freedom’ of each speaker is in some way affected by the action or inaction of the state. Both speakers might have a legitimate claim that their freedom of expression is limited; Susan is punished for stating her opinion and Andrew is denied an opportunity to speak on television. While not being able to speak on television is a problem for Andrew resulting in his opinion being less widely disseminated that it would have otherwise been, the state has not actually acted at all. The outcome is indistinguishable from what it would have been if there was no state at all. Andrew lacked the ‘liberty’ to speak on television; the liberty in this sense is a positive liberty1, i.e. the provision of the relevant means to achieve his goal. In Susan’s case, the state did intervene, and it was that intervention that curtailed her liberty to express herself how she wished. In contrast to Andrew’s case, Susan lacked the negative liberty to publish her opinions without breaking the law. Where there is negative liberty, there is no positive action by the state, and vice versa.


    There might be some reasons why, in certain situations we should have positive freedom of expression. In Andrew’s case it was proposed that ensuring that he was able to speak on television would promote a fairer democratic process, as his view would be placed on the table for consideration. There are difficulties with this idea, of course (should every view be heard, or just ‘respectable’ ones, and how do we decide which ones are ‘respectable’? And so on.). Difficulties aside, if we wanted to base our conception of liberty on the positive sense and argue for freedom of expression, we would soon run into necessary limits. Self evidently we could not have a state with the resources to provide a major platform for everyone any time they wish to express their opinion, and the more of these platforms that exist, the less prominent they are. It would be self-defeating. What might be called ‘freedom of expression’ in this positive sense is therefore not a position I think is defensible, at least not in any absolute sense.


    On the other hand, I believe that in the first case Susan was treated unjustly. Her freedom to express her republican opinions publicly at all was removed. The state positively intervened to silence her voice, and limited her negative freedom to express herself as she wished. This is the kind of freedom that hate speech and public order laws have an impact on, and I do think it is defensible. I will therefore defend negative freedom of expression in this series.




    1 Berlin, I., 1969, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, in I. Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty, London: Oxford University Press. New ed. in Berlin 2002.

    Category: Freedom of Expression

    Article by: Notung

    I started as a music student, studying at university and music college, and playing trombone for various orchestras. While at music college, I became interested in philosophy, and eventually went on to complete an MA in Philosophy in 2012. An atheist for as long as I could think for myself, a skeptic, and a political lefty, my main philosophical interests include epistemology, ethics, logic and the philosophy of religion. The purpose of Notung (named after the name of the sword in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen) is to concentrate on these issues, examining them as critically as possible.

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    • An Ardent Skeptic

      Hi Notung,

      I saw your tweet:
      “Considering a drama post. I have no idea what it will be about – I just want to hear my phone beeping with new emails about comments. ;)”
      Interestingly enough, I wrote a comment on this blogpost yesterday but didn’t post it. I just wanted to say that I have been reading your blogposts and enjoying them. And, I wanted to mention the book “Trust Me, I’m Lying”. In that book the author talks about how blogging has evolved in such a way as to stir up controversy. Controversy attracts blog hits and comments. Well written blogposts, which people largely agree with, tend to have fewer or no comments.
      As a solution to the current vitriolic nature of internet drama in the skeptic and atheist communities, I suggested to some friends, that those among us who want to make a more positive online environment start writing comments of support on great blogposts, and tweeting and facebooking about these posts – Start generating some buzz about great skeptics doing a great job of promoting skepticism; people like Sharon Hill, Barbara Drescher, Tim Farley, etc… My idea was shot down with the response that “People like drama” so it won’t work.
      We do have the liberty to choose what we respond to and what we wish to support. From now on, I’m choosing to support well-reasoned, positive and constructive people writing well-reasoned, positive and constructive blogposts. So here I am to say that I am reading and enjoying your blogposts. Keep up the great work!

    • Thanks very much – that’s great to hear. I fall into that trap quite a lot. I read a well-reasoned post and think “that was a good, well-reasoned post” but don’t post it as a comment. I’ll take your advice and start doing that!

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    • skepcheck

      i like this post and I agree with ardent. Not much else to say other than that.

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