Freedom of Speech


On December 9, 1893 the French anarchist, Auguste Vaillant, attacked the Chamber of Deputies with a home-made bomb. He was attempting to injure (but supposedly not kill) as many deputies as he could in revenge for his infamous guillotined comrade, Ravachol. By this point in time, the Third Republic had become fed-up with anarchists bombing and assassinating authorities. Two days following Vaillant’s attack, the French government began passing a group of laws that are pejoratively known as the “Villainous Laws,” the Lois Scélérates.

These three laws were specifically created to suppress anarchists, and consequently the anarchists’ speech:

  1. A modification of the 1881 law on freedom of the press which had punished only direct criminal provocation. Now indirect provocation and apology also became punishable. A judge could order the seizure of literature and even order preventive arrests.
  2. Criminal associations were made illegal, particularly anarchist groups, which were then numerous and very active. The law aimed to indict any member or sympathizer without distinction. It also encourages the denunciation, snitching: “Persons who are guilty of the crime, mentioned in this articles, shall be free from any penalty if, before any prosecution, they have disclosed to the constituted authorities the agreement established or make known the existence of the association.
  3. The most striking for the anarchists is this third law. It targets anarchists directly by naming them and forbidding them any kind of propaganda. As a result of this law, many anarchist newspapers were banned. This law lead to thousands of searches and arrests, including the Trial of Thirty.

The villainous laws lasted on the books for a century… finally being repealed in 1992.

The Lois Scelerates weren’t the first, nor the last series of laws to censor speech. Even today, debates within and beyond anarchist circles regarding freedom of speech are still prominent. In not too distant memory for example, Mary “Tipper” Gore co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center with three other “Washington Wives” . Their explicit aim was to increase parental control over the access of children to music deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes. The PMRC worked closely with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the British Phonographic Industry to impose advisory stickers on cassettes and CDs, advising potential parents that the content was not suitable for young ears. As a result, musicians began releasing edited versions of their albums.

Similar censorial regulations go back even further in the film industry to what were called the “Hays Code;” a set of industry moral guidelines that were applied to most United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. However, in the case of the Hays Code, the film industry was responding to government pressures. In 1922, after several risqué films and a series of off-screen scandals involving Hollywood stars, the studios enlisted Presbyterian elder Will H. Hays to rehabilitate Hollywood’s image. Hollywood in the 1920s was badgered by a number of scandals, which brought widespread condemnation from religious, civic, and political organizations. Many felt the movie industry had always been morally questionable. Political pressure was increasing, with legislators in 37 states introducing almost one hundred movie censorship bills in 1921. Faced with the prospect of having to comply with hundreds, and potentially thousands, of inconsistent and easily changed decency laws in order to show their movies, the studios chose self-regulation as the preferable option.

Parental Advisory stickers, film industry guidelines, and other such guidelines come from a long tradition of often Christian censorship of speech. Yet, today what we debate in our society is the less intuitive censorship of speech that is motivated by values held by the secular left-wing. As each example I gave earlier had been in response to various circumstances where social groups have feared the activity and influence of their adversaries, left-wing censorship has been no different. The most familiar history of censorship from the Left took place in the Soviet Union. Communist paranoia and totalitarian political strategies had suppressed speech at least as much, if not more than the historic censorship from the religious right-wing. But today the regulation of speech that we are discussing doesn’t come from the dictates of the Party; it is closer to the Tipper Gore variety of examples that I have provided.

What we debate now is the morality of speech on college campuses, in corporate offices, on social media, and in the streets. Our censors come in the form of individual do-gooders, Antifa, internet forum moderators, or Human Resources departments. The motivations range from the promotion of multiculturalism and spaces that feel safe for minorities to express themselves, to the fight against an ascendant authoritarian nationalism. While the former has more in common with the moral crusades of religious mothers afraid that rap and rock n’ roll will seduce their children to evil and degeneracy, the latter categorically finds itself closer to the Third Republic’s motivations in passing the Lois Scelerates.

In other words, what Antifa and other militant group actions are responding to is a legacy of terrorism from the Right that has taken the form of building-demolishing explosions, in the case of the Oklahoma City Bombing, to more recent mass-murders at Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues. Individual murders have also been a consistent theme in far-right terrorism; whether it’s the under-reported killings of minorities and anti-racists, or the more widely broadcast murder of Heather Heyer’s death from the White Nationalist’s hit-and-run on counter-protesters during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

What these contemporary progressives and quasi-socialists are responding to is rather different. It is a dysfunction in discourse and organization management that recognizes so-called “hate speech” as a powerful, affective act that is thought to be a form of verbal abuse. The common issues that inspire this censorial response are various, but tend to be much less lethal. These liberals seek to regulate such things as cultural appropriation, mis-gendering, sexist and racist speech, and other sorts of harassment of minorities. Examples of liberal strategies to regulate this speech come in the form of the firing of professors from colleges and universities, online exposition campaigns (sometimes in the form of doxxing), de-platforming public figures from social media websites (such as Alex Jones), and attempts to dis-invite or shut down on-campus presentations through demonstrations.

Often enough, political pundits on TV, or podcasts, or in their blogs and news articles fail to distinguish between the militants and the liberals. And in reality the agents of censorship from the Left seem to find it difficult to make such distinctions as well. This could be due to the fact that an individual could just as well be motivated and responding in both of these styles simultaneously. However, I intend to demonstrate why the distinction is worth maintaining.

While both the right-wing and the left-wing have and still do advocate for freedom of speech, it is the left-wing that is especially prone to a sense of hypocrisy when those associated with them become censorial. This is the case because very often, freedom of speech is not defended on the same grounds by the left and right-wing. The right-wing defends freedom of speech on a constitutional basis; therefor, it is predicated on notions of citizenship and belonging to the same society, or the same race, or on some kind of merit. The left-wing, though sometimes for the same reasons, tends towards defenses of free speech on a humanist basis; recognizing freedom of speech as a universally applicable right. There are advocates for freedom of speech in both camps that believe protecting speech from censorship is instrumentally important for the broader project of making thoughts transparent and accessible to everyone, claiming that this is necessary to provide evidence in a rational quest for facts and truths. Regardless of that defense, it is the humanism of the left-wing that makes censorship unjustifiable universally, thus causing embarrassment by becoming associated with their own censors.

Now as anarchists, many of us share these humanistic sympathies with the Left and suffer from the same embarrassments. What we do not share with the liberals or conservatives, however, is the idea that we ought to be objectively associated with those we deeply disagree with by any external system of authority. In this sense, the constitutional basis of conservatives is similar to some anarchists’ views that freedom of speech is only applicable within a subsection of humanity: that is, within those groups that we have freely chosen to become part of and are free to leave should our minds change. It is from this emphasis on freedom of association that anarchists often make the case for suppressing the speech of those both within and outside of their groups. From the inside, as the actualization of group accountability. Towards the outside, as barriers to entry into the group and/or harassment of those they find intolerable. All of that said, I believe that the most salient point we anarchists could be making within today’s discourse around free speech is often missed…

The first question it would make sense for us to be asking is, ‘what is speech, anyway?” Through examining the details of speech itself, its various forms and purposes, its evolution and its social significance, we should be able to point out that there is an inherent difference between the activity of the liberal activists’ (like “de-platforming” transgressive individuals), and the militants’ conceptions of community self-defense. Instead of pointing towards said difference, anarchists have at times referred to the defensive nature of militants’ actions; yet, something very important is left missing and their justifications come out confused. Among many anarchist defenses of actions by militants, the case is still based on the idea that such actions have anything to do with speech to begin with. This is a completely unnecessary concession to their critics’ framing of the issues. Though it is a more subtle set of arguments than the activists’ no-platform thinking, the arguments remain roughly circumscribed by the idea that speech is an activity with consequences anarchists are attempting to defend themselves and others from. This sort of defense takes the form of arguments such as: the consequences of a National Socialist Movement rally encourages violence against minorities by emboldening those who would carry out violence locally to act up. Speech is still considered the cause, and suppression of speech is considered the solution.

Put simply, the missing fact about the activity of attacking neo-Nazis and other enemies of anarchists is that it isn’t speech that is being attacked explicitly. Rather, speech is consequently disrupted by such attacks because what is being attacked is the speaker. It doesn’t make a difference if the person anarchists are attacking hasn’t been saying anything at all, or, if they’re a popular voice in contemporary discourse. Speech may be the way that such persons disclose their identities and political aspirations, giving themselves away as an enemy; but, it isn’t at all necessary that speech be involved in the situation. If by other means than listening, we were to learn that someone is our enemy -be it from directly witnessing their activities, or recognizing their name in the membership accounting of their organizations- the motivation to attack them would remain. To honor the notion that this is a form of censorship is just as absurd as to argue that when Seal Team 6 assassinated Osama Bin Laden, it was an intentional form of censorship, rather than an act of combat in an ongoing war. For us anarchists, we have been on the losing side of a war that has lasted quite some time, and when there is a viable opportunity to combat our enemies, their mostly incoherent rhetoric isn’t the target… it is the persons themselves.

After making this distinction between attacking speech itself as opposed to attacking someone because of who they are or what they do, we can not at least set that class of activity aside and begin to answer, “what is speech?” From that basis it will then become possible to think about free speech and its obstacles. Given the length I want to keep this under, I won’t provide the most rich accounts of speech, freedom, and so on. Though I hope that the accounts I provide are fulfilling enough to carry this essay forward.

Speech as Expression

Language development is a process starting early in human life. Infants start without knowing a language, yet by 10 months, babies can distinguish speech sounds and engage in babbling. Some research has shown that the earliest learning begins in utero when the fetus starts to recognize the sounds and speech patterns of its mother’s voice and differentiate them from other sounds after birth.

Typically, children develop receptive language abilities before their verbal or expressive language develops. Receptive language is the internal processing and understanding of language. As receptive language continues to increase, expressive language begins to slowly develop.

Usually, productive language is considered to begin with a stage of pre-verbal communication in which infants use gestures and vocalizations to make their intents known to others. According to a general principle of development, new forms then take over old functions, so that children learn words to express the same communicative functions they had already expressed by proverbial means.

Speech production is the process by which thoughts are translated into speech. This includes the selection of words, the organization of relevant grammatical forms, and then the articulation of the resulting sounds by the motor system using the vocal apparatus. Speech production can be spontaneous such as when a person creates the words of a conversation, reactive such as when they name a picture or read aloud a written word, or imitative, such as in speech repetition. Speech production is not the same as language production since language can also be produced manually by signs.

In ordinary fluent conversation people pronounce roughly four syllables, ten or twelve phonemes and two to three words out of their vocabulary (that can contain 10 to 100 thousand words) each second.[1] Errors in speech production are relatively rare occurring at a rate of about once in every 900 words in spontaneous speech.[2] Words that are commonly spoken or learned early in life or easily imagined are quicker to say than ones that are rarely said, learnt later in life, or are abstract.[3][4]

Normally speech is created with pulmonary pressure provided by the lungs that generates sound by phonation through the glottis in the larynx that then is modified by the vocal tract into different vowels and consonants. However speech production can occur without the use of the lungs and glottis in alaryngeal speech by using the upper parts of the vocal tract. An example of such alaryngeal speech is Donald Duck talk.[5]

The vocal production of speech may be associated with the production of hand gestures that act to enhance the comprehensibility of what is being said.[6]

The development of speech production throughout an individual’s life starts from an infant’s first babble and is transformed into fully developed speech by the age of five.[7] The first stage of speech doesn’t occur until around age one (holophrastic phase). Between the ages of one and a half and two and a half the infant can produce short sentences (telegraphic phase). After two and a half years the infant develops systems of lemmas used in speech production. Around four or five the child’s lemmas are largely increased, this enhances the child’s production of correct speech and they can now produce speech like an adult. An adult now develops speech in four stages: Activation of lexical concepts, select lemmas needed, morphologically and phonologically encode speech, and the word is phonetically encoded.

Three stages

The production of spoken language involves three major levels of processing: conceptualization, formulation, and articulation.[1][8][9]

The first is the processes of conceptualization or conceptual preparation, in which the intention to create speech links a desired concept to the particular spoken words to be expressed. Here the preverbal intended messages are formulated that specify the concepts to be expressed.[10]

The second stage is formulation in which the linguistic form required for the expression of the desired message is created. Formulation includes grammatical encoding, morpho-phonological encoding, and phonetic encoding.[10] Grammatical encoding is the process of selecting the appropriate syntactic word or lemma. The selected lemma then activates the appropriate syntactic frame for the conceptualized message. Morpho-phonological encoding is the process of breaking words down into syllables to be produced in overt speech. Syllabification is dependent on the preceding and proceeding words, for instance: I-com-pre-hend vs. I-com-pre-hen-dit.[10] The final part of the formulation stage is phonetic encoding. This involves the activation of articulatory gestures dependent on the syllables selected in the morpho-phonological process, creating an articulatory score as the utterance is pieced together and the order of movements of the vocal apparatus is completed.[10]

The third stage of speech production is articulation, which is the execution of the articulatory score by the lungs, glottis, larynx, tongue, lips, jaw and other parts of the vocal apparatus resulting in speech.[8][10]

Written language is an evolutionarily recent human invention; consequently, its neural substrates cannot be determined by the genetic code. How, then, does the brain incorporate skills of this type? One possibility is that written language is dependent on evolutionarily older skills, such as spoken language; another is that dedicated substrates develop with expertise. If written language does depend on spoken language, then acquired deficits of spoken and written language should necessarily co-occur. Alternatively, if at least some substrates are dedicated to written language, such deficits may doubly dissociate. We report on 5 individuals with aphasia, documenting a double dissociation in which the production of affixes (e.g., the -ing in jumping) is disrupted in writing but not speaking or vice versa. The findings reveal that written- and spoken-language systems are considerably independent from the standpoint of morpho-orthographic operations. Understanding this independence of the orthographic system in adults has implications for the education and rehabilitation of people with written-language deficits.

speech and writing are lateralized functions in the brain

Spoken language has a mean range of 4-to-5-hertz, which correlates with the 4-5 hertz range of the brain’s motor cortex.

This is a big question to ask and people who have tried to answer it have filled volumes upon volumes of theory about it. You have my personal invitation to consult any of those volumes outside this text. To get to the bottom of what speech is, I will need to quickly demystify some things first. Mainly, I will need to situate speech realistically…

Speech comes from somewhere and that somewhere it comes from is us. By “us,” I mean conscious human beings that perceive sounds, sights, thoughts, nice aromas, bad weather, and significance. This perception is at the foundation of our existence. Perception is something our bodies are actively doing all of the time. And perception is happening in general before it becomes divided by our consciousness into selves, objects, worlds, and others.

This status of perception prior to these conscious divisions is central to understanding speech because speech comes from our actively perceiving, significance learning bodies. Speech is not simply an amalgamation of biological motions, sounds, syntactical rules, and signs. Speech happens in the context that is perceived by our bodies. Bodies that live in a world and share that world with others. And bodies that consciousness distinguishes from other bodies, dividing perception into subject(ive) and object(ive) structures, and differentiating between a world out there and our internal, private world within.

While speech is itself a type of expression, we privilege its status above other forms of expression because speech makes us aware of the subjectivity of others. Speech is how we not only communicate among ourselves, but also how we come to experience ourselves as a we to begin with. While the gaze of another makes us aware of ourselves as objects in a world when otherwise we experience our world subjectively, speech allows for that special something that makes it possible to go beyond the experience of the gaze and recognize shared goals that can unite us as subjects in our activities.


Because we are provided the legal definitions of speech so readily via search engine, allow me to just directly quote a few paragraphs from a possibly authoritative source:

“The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. Although adopted as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791, most First Amendment doctrine is a result of twenty-century litigation. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. It wasn’t until 1925, in Gitlow v. New York, that the Supreme Court extended the First Amendment freedoms of speech and the press to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment due process clause.

The government may regulate obscenity. Speech defined as obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment. Obscenity is speech that the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taken as a whole, to appeal to the prurient interest; depicts or describes in a patently offensive manner specifically defined sexual conduct; and lacks as a whole serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Nor is speech likely to incite violence, lawless action, or danger to the nation’s security protected. Commercial speech is protected under an intermediate level of scrutiny and the government can ban deceptive or illegal commercial speech.

The right to free speech includes other methods of expression that communicates a message. As new methods of communication are developed, they have presented unique challenges to First Amendment doctrine.”

Language and Writing

Censorship and Representation

One can take away another’s ability to speak brutally, say, by removing their tongue. But through censorship what isn’t suppressed is the ability to speak; what is suppressed through censorship is the ability to be heard. As we have shown earlier, to be seen and not heard is to remain an object for the consciousness of others. Censorship, ensuring that one is not heard, doesn’t fulfill the requirements for making them seen. For this, representation is required. Through representation, we are shown the silent. And if the silent is also to be censored, their existence for others can only be that of an object.

Censorship is also deprives the audience of its muse. In this sense, intellectual property is also a form of censorship.

Institutions of Silence

Objectification and Violence