When is free speech not about freedom?
When it’s about racism
in The free speech wars
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There are two commonly made claims about free speech and racism. The first, ultra-libertarian claim is that all racist speech, and indeed all speech, however awful, must be allowed. This position has some, though relatively few, real-world defenders, as few would countenance certain kinds of cartoons or arguments being published, for example in terms of racism or, say, child pornography. Instead, most of those who purport to be defending free speech as a matter of principle are instead defending a second, different assertion: that a particular speech act is not in fact racist. This is, or should be, viewed as an empirical dispute. It is true that sometimes opponents of a particular speech act focus on principled claims about free speech per se, arguing that not all speech should be allowed, and that free speech is not an unassailable principle that can never be trumped by other considerations (such as decency or harm). That is a fairly standard and arguably correct argument, but it sometimes mistakes the relevant terrain of dispute: defenders of a particular speech act should instead be viewed as denying that the speech act in question is in fact racist. This chapter explores these two positions. It also argues that there is no easy distinction between racist speech acts and racist actions in the world. This is not because there is no distinction between speech and action but because of the meaning of racism, which is fundamentally an argument for action.

The free speech wars

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