• What is Freedom of Expression? II. A Civil Liberty


    In Part 1 I outlined a distinction between positive freedom and negative freedom, and argued that freedom of expression should be seen as a negative liberty.


    Within the idea of negative freedom of expression lies another distinction. Suppose while working in an office Luke, while in earshot of several colleagues expresses the view that gay people should be seen as outcasts. Now consider two scenarios. In the first, Luke is fired from his job, as his words express an abhorrent and intolerant view of a particular minority, which his employer deems harmful to the working environment (especially for those targeted by his opinion). This is, at least in some way a restriction on Luke’s negative freedom. There was an intervention to restrict something that he would have otherwise been free to do, i.e. voice his opinion at work. I will call this kind of freedom social freedom; freedom without any significant prohibitions. It is ‘social’ because it deals with the interactions and relations between individuals in society, without necessarily involving the state. In the second scenario, Luke is not only fired from his job, but also arrested for hate speech. Here, Luke lacks a kind of freedom that he possessed in the first scenario: the freedom to express that opinion without being punished for it by the state. I call this kind of freedom civil freedom.1


    That said, if the speaker is speaking or working on the behalf of the government, it might be proper to restrict what they are allowed to say. For instance, if we grant that a private company has the right to deny their employees the right to make certain statements while at work (such as espousing offensive opinions to clients), similarly the government has the right to restrict their employees in the same sort of way. I take it that in this context we are no longer talking about civil suppression of expression but rather social suppression, even though it is performed by the government. The government in this case might respond with disciplinary measures such as sacking the offending employee, but it would still be improper to bring legal sanctions against them.


    Just like with positive liberty, I do not think absolute social freedom is a defensible position. For instance, I think that Luke’s employer was justified in sacking him purely for the reason that he expressed that opinion. There is a discussion to be had about the desirable extent of social freedom (for example we might encourage people to listen to each other more than we already do), but that is not particularly relevant to arguments regarding freedom of expression in the ordinary sense. I do not believe that Luke should have been arrested merely for holding and stating that opinion. That, therefore is the character of ‘freedom’ that we are embracing with regards to expression: a negative, civil liberty.


    1 Note that by using the word ‘civil’ here I am not referring to ‘civil law’. By ‘civil liberty’ I mean free from criminal restrictions imposed by the state.

    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

      Armchair has just finished his yearly “social freedom” workplace training. It’s required of all managers. The training is important because there are laws which restrict social freedom in the workplace to insure that Equal Oppportunity Employment legal guidelines are met. His employer can face legal problems from the government if they do not exercise due diligence in insuring a “non-hostile” environment for all of their employees.

      “Social” freedom isn’t completely divorced from “civil” freedom in these types of environments. There’s just a middleman in between.

      (Am I allowed to use the term “middleman” or is “middleperson” the only acceptable term these days. I know I have the negative, civil freedom to say “middleman”. Doesn’t mean I won’t be told I shouldn’t, and tarred and feathered as a gender traitoring, misogyny enabler by the “social freedom” police. 😉

    • I think that if the restrictions on ‘social freedom’ are a result of regulations imposed on the company by law then I’d say prima facie it is really a restriction on ‘civil freedom’ and therefore a free speech issue. However you raise a really good and interesting question, and one I hadn’t thought of (and I wrote my MA dissertation on this topic!):

      Is not being allowed to make (for instance) racist statements in the workplace a restriction on free expression? It doesn’t really seem that it is, since it doesn’t seem to be anything like criminalising racist speech. After all, you aren’t locked up or fined for ‘creating the hostile environment’, you’re just disciplined or fired. So I suppose the state isn’t directly involved in the punishment of racist speech in the workplace, yet the restriction on social freedom is still an effect of the state sanctions on ‘creating a hostile environment’.

      I might do a post dedicated to this issue, since it’s such a good objection. It would help me sort out my position on the matter!

      I’ll follow it with a post about how you should be ostracised from the atheist community as a result of your choice of words propping up the patriarchal discrimination inherent in society. I guarantee the latter will get more hits!

    • An Ardent Skeptic

      The lines between social freedom and civil freedom aren’t completely clear cut. Another example is the designation of hate crimes. More severe penalties for assault, murder, etc, if it can be proven that there was discriminatory motivation for the crime. The perpetrator’s “hate” is generally determined to exist based on prejudicial statements they have made about the ethnicity, sexual preference, etc of the victim.

      The more severe penalty is considered a thought crime rather than an addition punishment for the exercise of free speech, still, it’s a bit of a grey area, IMO. The perpetrator wouldn’t be sentenced to a more severe penalty for the crime he/she has committed unless they have made statements which articulate their prejudicial thoughts. If they had kept their thoughts to themselves, nobody would know that the crime was motivated by hate.
      What do you think?
      (I don’t think your post demanding that I be ostracized from the atheist community would generate many hits, BTW. I’m a complete nobody to the social justice warriors, and many of the Slymepitters wouldn’t come to my defense because I’ve committed the unpardonable sin of demanding nuance in the discussion about bad words. Too many of them are sure that they can read my mind and know I don’t like bad words despite my insistence that it’s bad ideas I object to. 😉

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