What is freedom of speech?

by

New Zealand Bus’ decision not to allow the New Zealand Atheist Bus Campaign to place these advertisements on its buses has some, including some religious folks, complaining that free speech rights are being interfered with. While I think that the advertisements would have stimulated a healthy debate (a debate which is happening already to some extent thanks to the publicity NZ Bus’ decision has generated), I don’t think this is a free speech issue (at least not one that implicates the Atheist Bus Campaign’s free speech rights).

What does the right to freedom of speech mean? It does not mean that I can compel other individuals to carry my message on their buildings or billboards or put up placards on their front lawn. It does not mean that you or I have a right force others to listen to our message. You’re free to stop reading this blog for instance, although I hope you don’t.

Freedom of speech is a restriction on government action. It is essentially a right not to be censored by the government. It is not a right that imposes positive obligations, rather it limits the way in which the government can act. Alan Dershowitz explains this point nicely in his book Rights from Wrongs:

There is no right to speak freely in all contexts. If you say something your boss does not like, he may fire you. Your spouse may leave you. Your parents may punish you. Your private school may expel you, and your friends may abandon you. Only the government may not restrict your right of free speech. (at 175)

So New Zealand Bus is free to choose whether to accept this or any other advertisement. Its right to free speech allows it to make that choice without censorship or direction from the government. That is of course not to say that we might not hope that it would carry any message to promote public debate but its refusal to do so does not interfere with the atheist campaigners’ free speech rights. Critics of New Zealand Bus’ decision are of course free to exercise their right to freedom of speech to try to convince it to change its mind (as they are doing).

I note that New Zealand Bus’ decision may raise other issues, such as whether it is discriminating against the atheist campaigners on religious grounds.  That’s an issue that I think Jesse has some thoughts on, so I will leave it for another day.

Advertisements

Tags:

2 Responses to “What is freedom of speech?”

  1. Chris Says:

    From memory there is a powerful SCOTUS decision which I think strikes at a similar point – Miami Herald v Tornillo.

    The Miami Herald printed two editorials attacking the character of plaintiff Tornillo, a candidate for the Florida State Legislature. Tornillo filed suit, demanding that the newspaper print verbatim his replies to the editorials, pursuant to a Florida statute requiring newspapers to publish, without charge, replies of political candidates whom they criticize during election campaigns

    The Supreme Court reversed: “A newspaper is more than a passive receptacle or conduit for news, comment, and advertising. The choice of material to go into a newspaper, and the decisions made as to limitations on the size and content of the paper, and treatment of public issues and public officials – whether fair or unfair – constitute the exercise of editorial control and judgment”.

  2. Jonathan Says:

    Thanks Chris. That’s a very interesting decision. If anyone is interested, you can find a copy of it here: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?navby=case&court=US&vol=418&page=241

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: