Some Notes on Free Speech, What It is, and What Constitutes Justifiable Restrictions of It

Did you know that when I choose who sees my posts or when I unfriend somebody on Facebook or block somebody on Twitter this does no violence to my expansive position on free speech? Do you realize that I when I use the word “violence” in the rhetorical question I just posed it is purely as a figure of speech and that speech is not actually violence? Did you know that silence is also not actually violence? On the other hand, violence can be a form of speech. Do you understand how that works?

An elementary school library

Did you know that censoring content for adults is not the same thing as censoring content for children? That’s because the body of science in child development finds that, because of variation in imagination, sense of self, and degree of maturity in the capacity for abstraction and reason, not everything from the adult world is age-appropriate and that the regulation of childhood experience is important for normal development of children into adulthood.

In figuring out the world and their place in it, their role in the system of roles and statuses, children often pretend to be things they encounter in their environment. Children may obsess over certain thoughts. Children are easily influenced and manipulated.

Did you know that hate speech and offensive speech and other forms of objectionable speech shared in spaces containing consenting adults are covered under the doctrine of free speech? The merits of these forms of speech are a subjective matter and a commissar who determines what speech in a public space is permissible and what is not for consenting adults necessarily depends on subjective judgment backed by illegitimate force. However, there are time and place restrictions to speech, a matter that I next take up.

Suppose a progressive is giving a talk at a university and conservatives in the audience bring noisemakers and make noise sufficient to disrupt the ability of the speaker to make her points and the audience to receive them under conditions that permit maximal consideration. The disruptive conservatives in the audience are violating the free speech rights of the speaker and and the audience. Since the government is obliged to defend the free speech rights of citizens, it is entirely legitimate, and in fact a dereliction of duty to fail to do so, for the police to forcibly remove the disruptive students from the hall and arrest them for violating the civil rights of the speaker and the audience.

Here is another example. It does not violate the speech rights of a kindergarten teacher to discipline her for talking to her students about gender identity, since elementary school is not an appropriate time and place for such talk. Why is this? It is not age-appropriate; children this young are not developmentally ready for this subject matter. They are minors and cannot freely consent to receiving this information. They are a captive audience; they cannot reasonably leave if they object to this speech. There are reasons for subjecting children to speech to which they cannot consent, such as language arts, math and science, American history etc. But the teacher’s religious or other deeply-held beliefs are not germane to the classroom. Nor are sexually intimate facts about her life.

I conclude by noting that many of those who criticize restrictions on what teachers can expose children to in elementary school are the same people who object to books currently sitting on shelves in high school libraries and who, using the rhetoric of diversity, equity, and inclusion, seek to remove curriculum using historical and scientific facts they find objectionable in light of their political-ideological beliefs. as a general rule, no books should be censored. However, in the case of children, material designed to sexualize them, censorship is appropriate.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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