Social Philosophy and Policy


Daniel  Jacobson  a1
a1 Philosophy, Bowling Green State University

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“ 'Free speech' is just the name we give to verbal behavior that serves the substantive agendas we wish to advance”—or so literary theorist and professor of law Stanley Fish has claimed. This cynical dictum is one of several skeptical challenges to freedom of speech that have been extremely influential in the American academy. I will follow the skeptics' lead by distinguishing between two broad styles of critique: the progressive and the postmodern. Fish's dictum, however, like many of the bluntest charges, belongs to neither class exclusively. As an initial characterization of the distinction between these critiques, progressive skepticism claims that freedom of speech is a bad thing, while postmodernist skepticism claims it to be conceptually impossible. Both forms of skepticism hold the classical liberal endorsement of free speech and condemnation of censorship to be both naive and reactionary. Skepticism about free speech flourishes at universities in the United States and is especially well represented among professors at the country's most prestigious law schools. As legal scholar Robert Post approvingly observes: “Liberated from traditional inhibitions against official suppression of speech, the left has mobilized to pursue a rich variety of political agendas.”


a I would like to thank my fellow contributors to this volume for their comments; Erin O'Connor for the invaluable resource of her Weblog, Critical Mass at; and especially Ellen Frankel Paul for extremely helpful editorial suggestions.