Professor Rae Langton

Reimagining Free Speech

Free speech is a freedom to do things with words, but harms are done in its name to people, to knowledge, and to democracy. Alert to the costs of ‘liberty’, Hart’s critique of an idealized liberalism is a prescient warning for certain free speech pathologies of our times. Hart described the ‘priority of liberty’ in Rawls as ‘baffling’ and ‘dogmatic’, with roots in a tacit, unargued ideal. He pointed to conflicts between liberty and other values, and within liberty itself, and insisted on ‘consideration of [their] relative value’. Fake news, hate speech and pornography have made his advice more pressing, and so too the rise of inhuman speakers, corporate and machine. If free speech is about doing things with words, it is time to reconsider its point, its conditions, and its value for us as knowers, agents and political participants.

Rae Langton, FBA, FAAAS, MAE

Knightbridge Professor 
Chair, Faculty of Philosophy
Newnham College
Sidgwick Avenue 
University of Cambridge CB3 9DF