Freedom of Speech? No Such Thing!

I get lots of solicitations for libertarian groups and I’m very pleased that there are so many of them these days. I can’t possibly support them all but I recently ponied up for an organization called F.I.R.E. (Freedom for Individual Rights in Education). Their focus is on fighting suppression of free speech on college campuses. Thus, for example, FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for October 2013:

Salem State University in Massachusetts prohibits “cultural intolerance” in its residence halls—a broad ban that threatens debate on controversial issues in a place where students often speak the most freely. Making matters worse, the policy applies not only to “actions” but also to “omissions,” broadening its scope to include not only speech but also a student’s personal decision not to speak.

It burns me up to see self-appointed fascist administrators launching attacks on individuals who dare to speak their minds in unpopular ways. And yet, there is a problem, centered on the distinction between public and private institutions. Suppose a small Baptist college decided that students would not be allowed to mock Christianity or promote Islam on campus. Could there be any objection to such a policy? Now suppose that same college decided it would not admit black students. Any thoughtful libertarian would have to defend this policy, distasteful though it may be, on grounds of freedom of association. The bottom line is clear: owners of private colleges have every right to determine whom they will admit as students or hire as faculty and how they are required to act on campus.

Now what about state colleges such as Salem State? Such institutions are “public property,” an oxymoron if we think about it. “Property” denotes the right to use or dispose of some valuable asset, implying an exclusion of non-owners or others who have not been invited to use the property. On the other hand “public” means, if anything, that anybody is allowed to use the asset and nobody is excluded. Who owns San Jose State University where I teach? The California State University Board of Trustees is the most likely candidate, but the faculty has a lot of control through the faculty unions and faculty senates. The Governor and the legislators wield a lot of influence too. The citizens own the place in theory but the connection between SJSU and the citizenry is so remote that it might as well be non-existent. The lack of clarity about who owns the place is the source of most of the idiotic, wasteful, and sometimes downright offensive policies that we see at SJSU and all other government agencies.

So what sort of speech is to be allowed at SJSU? I would say anything goes except shouting down lecturers. Objectionable behavior such as name-calling should be met with ostracism and boycotting or perhaps tit-for-tat. No need for prohibitions. But the people who have power over these matters no doubt see it differently.

Thinking about it more, there really isn’t any such thing as freedom of speech. Speech is not carried out in a vacuum (literally: there can be no sound waves!). If you’re speaking you are standing on someone’s property; if writing you’re using pen and paper or a computer. Land, pen, paper and computers are all resources whose owners have the right to determine who uses them and how. I have no right to invade your house and deliver a speech in your living room nor to grab your computer and compose a blog. Freedom of speech can only mean freedom to use one’s property, or the property of another who has given consent, for speaking purposes. (This, by the way, solves the fire-in-a-crowded-theater conundrum. Prohibitions on yelling “fire” are not a diminution of freedom of speech but rather a recognition of a theater owner’s right to control behavior on his property. See Rothbard’s excellent Ethics of Liberty p. 114.)

In the end, as Rothbard points out, there is no dichotomy between property rights and “civil” rights. There are only property rights, recognizing one’s own body as one’s primary form of property.

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