CoursesHistory and Theory of Freedom of Expression
COMM 3220-301

History and Theory of Freedom of Expression

Mondays and Wednesdays, 12:00 pm-1:30 pm

If we were to fashion new laws for speech from scratch in our media-saturated, fake news world, would they be different laws from those we have? The rootedness of free speech in our civic DNA springs from enduring philosophical arguments over what truth and knowledge are, what human nature is like, and what we think society owes to and requires from its members. We explore foundational debates at the core of the First Amendment, the evolving interpretation of the amendment by the Supreme Court, its determined historical challengers, and struggles over its applicability to contemporary controversies. We address strong claims that unfettered speech is central to democratic societies and strong claims that society can be made more democratic by removing discriminatory speech from social media and public discourse more generally. Every society limits speech in significant ways. What are these limits in the United States, why are these the limits, and are they the ones we want? This reading and discussion seminar meets for lively, informed dialogue and debate.


What This Course is About

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
–First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

Free speech is an idea with broad political shoulders. Some consider it to be the fundamental condition of legitimate government. Others believe that, to the contrary, unfettered speech is a threat to legitimate government. Both views have long histories and well developed philosophical underpinnings.

Freedom of speech as a positive ideal descends from 18th century classical liberalism, a political philosophy that rose in response to schismatic shifts in religious belief, the rise of market capitalism, and new thinking about the natural world.

Classical liberalism offered a historically novel picture of how the world worked, what human nature is like, and the proper role of the state in citizens’ lives. It challenged centuries of control by Church and King and defended individual autonomy against abusive state power. It inspired democratic revolutions and confronted injustice. And yet, neither human nature nor the world turned out to be as simple as classical liberalism supposed.

Classical liberalism’s long-time rival is the Romantic tradition. Its modern iteration came into view in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its views of human nature, truth, history, and the proper role of the state reject many of the propositions of classical liberalism. It has offered radically different solutions to contemporary speech problems.

While defending the broadest possible tolerance and expansiveness for civic and individual speech has been the cause of classical liberal reformers, champions for new understandings of equality have charged that traditional free speech norms undermine equality and propagate injustice. We will analyze this tug of war through philosophical claims about the agency and consequences of speech, the history of its evolution in law and Supreme Court decisions, and through close examination of contemporary speech conflicts, including fears that social media have weakened the deep structure of democracy.

In this contemporary moment, we will ask exactly what constitutes speech; what gap, if any, exists between speech and action; if and how speech inflicts harm, whether imaginative materials, as opposed to persons themselves can be responsible for harmful effects, and that most basic of political questions, what is the best way to live together.


section attributes
  • COMM Advocacy & Activism (ACAA)
  • COMM Communication and Public Service (ACCP)
  • COMM Critical Journalism (ACCJ)
  • COMM Culture & Society (ACCS)
  • COMM Politics & Policy (ACPP)
  • Designated SNF Paideia Program Course (UNPP)
  • NU Sector History&Traditions (NUHT)
  • PPE Distributive Justice (APPJ)
  • SEAS Social Science (EUSS)
  • Wharton UG Core Flex GenEd (WUFG)
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