Free Speech Is Not a Right

Often hailed as a fundamental concept for the modern interpretation of Democracy, and a rallying cry for liberals of all sorts, free speech has become a kind of mantra – repeated so often, that the original meaning is lost. In a statist context, freedom of speech does not in fact exist.

So what does “Free Speech” even mean? Simply stated, it’s “the right to express yourself, up to certain limitations, within a public forum.” A better definition would be: “the privilege of expressing yourself in limited ways in a medium or property the government claims to own”.

“Wait one moment, that’s incorrect!”, you might say. Let’s take it one at a time:

“the privilege of expressing yourself”- what does that mean, and why replace “right” with “privilege”?

A ‘privilege’ is different from a ‘right’ in the sense that you have to ask permission to benefit from it. A right is simply something you have and can use without permission. As long as the government can regulate free speech (even if it choses not to), freedom of speech does not exist. For instance, if a slave is given certain freedoms by his master, but the master can rescind those at any moment, that person cannot be said to be free.

Secondly, as it is generally understood, free speech is bounded. “Hate speech,” “intolerance,” or usually anything that disagrees with political correctness is not seen as part of free speech. Factually, free speech comes close to: “expression that does not hurt anyone’s feelings.”

Finally, freedom of speech applies only within media the government claims to own. The government has claims of ownership on several kinds of public spaces: roads, public squares, newspapers or the radio spectrum. Freedom of speech does not apply in private spaces – you can speak freely within the confines of your house, and you are certainly right to censor people from expressing themselves in such a place.

Without a government to own public territory, all expression is confined to private spaces (these might be public in the same sense that a Mall has access ways and corridors, but it is privately owned). Similarly, the Internet, while generally understood as public space, is in fact private (almost all the equipment used to power it is held in private hands).

Thus, from a purely libertarian perspective, free speech is irrelevant. Private property rights can cover all possible forms of public expression, without the need for government interference.



5 comments so far

  1. Gabriel M. on

    A positive meaning of “free speech” is that speech, in itself, is not sufficient cause for prosecution. Speech is not a crime.

    The fact that certain states incriminate certain forms of speech means that their citizens don’t have the right to free speech.

    In private spaces, certain forms of speech can breach certain explicit preexisting contract, in which case the contract would specify the consented consequences.

    In a private context, “free speech” means that speech is not/cannot be a crime. You can ask/make me to leave because I said something you dislike but it’s not a crime.

  2. adi11235 on

    Quite right, thanks for the observations.

  3. ollysk2 on

    In the private spaces argument, I’d have to consent to that contract ahead of time, and then breach it, for ‘free speech’ to even become an issue. In a free associative context, if I don’t agree to a contract, then I’m not bound by it… in which case any ‘private limiting’ of that speech becomes meaningless anyway.


  4. Andrew Slominski on

    so true

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