The Cost of Free Speech


This post is slightly different than the usual post here. The main difference is that I am more unsure of the full implications of my current view than usual.

It seems pretty obvious to me that one still has free speech even when the speech will cost. For example, making sexist remarks may mean others judge you and think less of you. If a businessman makes racist remarks, then perhaps fewer of the relevant race will purchase goods or services from him. I do not think anyone would claim that the businessman does not have free speech because its exercise impacts him in a negative way.

Conversely, it seems to me pretty obvious that a Government that refused to grant contracts to businesses on the basis of the political speech of a director or shareholder would be limiting her free speech. The fact that she could speak her mind is technically true, but costs imposed by the Government on those who speak their mind matter – or certainly seem to matter in my opinion. Is this merely picking up on the point that Alan Dershowitz has made that Jono referenced here?

I think the answer must be no, because the implications are much larger. It suggests that a free market is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of genuine free speech. Am I missing anything?


4 Responses to “The Cost of Free Speech”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    Steve, I have been thinking about something similar in light of Michael Laws’ proposal to stop council advertising with a local newspaper allegedly because of its coverage of the council. Like you, my views are not fully developed on this issue.

    One thing I have been wondering is whether it makes a difference when an organ of the state acts in a commercial sphere (eg placing advertising, contracting) as opposed to exercising any governmental powers. Do you have any thoughts on this?

    One thing that I think is relevant to consider, in cases where the cost is the loss of some benefit, is whether the person who loses the benefit had a right to it in the first place (this may just be a different way of expressing the earlier point). Obviously if the government cut off a welfare benefit that a person was entitled to because of something he or she said, that would interfere with free speech. But would it also be an interference if a government agency switched teleco suppliers because it disagreed with a speech the CEO had recently given about environmental policy? Given that local government and government departments often try to promote corporate social responsibility and environmentally friendly business practices, I wonder if this type of behaviour might be quite common.

  2. stephenwhittington Says:

    The problem with differentiating between the state acting commercially or exercising government powers is that they cannot be completely separated. It seems highly likely that Government owned commercial enterprises will have access to cheaper loans, etc., because I believe that most would expect there to be a de facto bail out policy.

    Or, put another way, if Government owned commercial enterprises really acted as commercial enterprises, then there is no need for state ownership. Given that the sale price is a function of the future stream of revenue, then if they act like commercial enterprises then they could be sold and as much revenue would be realised as if they had been maintained in public hands. Alternatively, they do not act like commercial enterprises, in which case the distinction does not apply.

    The budget constraint may be relevant. Commercial enterprises could sign more costly contracts on the basis of political belief, but it seems that it is harder for them to do so than a state agency.

  3. Colin Hunter Says:

    What is political speech? When political speech effects bottom line is it still political speech? Is anything really that easy to seperate? The problem as I see it is, fine some CEO makes a speech about how global warming doesn’t exist. An SOE, decides that they don’t want to give a contract to the business. Is it a political decision? or is it one of branding? longterm strategy? or anything else? A private business might make exactly the same decision, especially in the case of racist comments I would think. If a CEO gives a speech saying their products are made poorly, can an SOE refuse a contract or is that a violation of freedom of speech?

    I guess what I’m getting at is that if that logic is continued than can the state make any decision? Even when giving out contracts say for the miliatary? Is this reductio ad absurdum?

    The question must be then can we isolate speech as purely political and having no real world consequences? There may be an example of this, but I’d guess that in the real world it is much harder to tell most of the time.

  4. Jesse Says:

    I think that the kind of behaviour you describe raises separate but related issues of (1) good governance and (2) freedom of speech.

    If a public official exercises his or her powers to give preferential treatment to his friends and punish people he dislikes (e.g., by giving contracts to the former and refusing licensing consents to the latter) then that is an abuse of power. It’s also a waste of public money (i.e., not pursuing a contractual opportunity with a positive net present value because he dislikes the other party or causing his state entity to buy at a premium from a friend).

    This type of governance problem can become a free speech problem I think. However, the issues are complex and I also don’t have settled views. Say, a political leader is frustrated with criticism being raised by the widget manufacturing industry. “Nice business you have there, shame if someone took away your license to make widgets,” he tells the widget industry, “maybe you should think about that before running your next round of ads against my new widget industry reforms.”

    Does that constitute action by a state official that restricts freedom of speech. I tend to think it does if the threat is to exercise an unrelated public power of decision so as to deter speech. So I think behaviour of that ground is not just objectionable on the basis that it is contrary to proper standards of administrative decision-making but also raises free speech issues.

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