Free speech is an ideal and a good. It is the nature of ideals and goods that they run up against other ideals and goods compromising their expression.
Plato’s Republic centers on the ideal of justice. By making justice the overriding emphasis of his hypothetical polis, Plato completely removes the ideals and goods of romantic love and familial love. Successful warriors are to be given their choice of mates and children are to be brought up in anonymous nurseries because parents tend to want the best for their children even when their children do not really deserve it.
The Republic is thus a reductio ad absurdum argument. Readers of Plato know that Plato considered love to be very important and love features extensively in The Symposium and The Phaedrus. Plato should not, therefore, be read as actually espousing his utopian city. He is engaged in a philosophical exercise; showing what it would take to have relatively perfect justice on earth while warning of taking the virtue to an excess.
Similarly, just as perfect earthly justice does not exist, neither does perfect free speech. There are other goods to consider, such as public safety and the protection of innocents. It is right and proper to set such limits on free speech. We should not abandon the word “justice” just because it is never absolute and it must contend with other goods and ideals and for the same reason we need not abandon the phrase and ideal of “free speech” just because perfect free speech is not to be seen. In fact, absolutely free speech would be an evil, just as concentrating only on justice would create evil. Even love must have its limits.
As I said in my essay on political correctness, some Marxists and other leftists like to reduce everything to issues of power and reject the idea that the free exchange of ideas can lead to truth. Likewise, adherents of identity politics often offer no argument and countenance no disagreement; starting sentences with, for instance, “As a black person…”. Such modes of speech qualify more as testimony than argument, although the testimony is likely to include all sorts of inaccurate factual claims and pseudo-explanations.
My position is that the free exchange of ideas and rational debate is a legitimate means of determining the truth. Anyone who disagrees with that and chooses to debate with me in the interest of convincing me of his views is engaged in a performative contradiction.
I can think of no proper limits to free speech other than speech that involves demonstrable harm to people who are not actively hurting anyone. Then the issue might become – “Is this person or group actively harming anyone?” And “Is violence or suppression of speech the appropriate mode of response to this harm?”
If there are limits to free speech, does it make sense to continue to use the phrase “free speech?”
Yes. To debate this issue presupposes that meaningful freedom is being exercised. If we are not meaningfully free, then debate is pointless. See my articles concerning free will and determinism.
If moral realism is accepted, then putting moral limits on free speech is not simply an exercise in power; it is to act morally. Tautologically, it will always be moral to act morally.
William James distinguishes between open questions and closed questions. The literal existence of the Greek gods is a closed question for most of us. The exact meaning of Christ’s crucifixion may be an open question. Political correctness is a practice that seeks to close open questions through sheer intimidation. Most of us at the Orthosphere disagree that what PC followers believe are closed questions are closed.
The avenues for expressing our disagreement are worryingly slight. If we give up on the notion that free speech is a virtue or even that it exists at all, then the left has every right to shut us up completely and shut down The Orthosphere as has happened elsewhere on other blogs.
As an undergraduate in philosophy, I did not enjoy having my conclusions decided for me in advance. My professors debated only what kind of materialism was the best kind. No alternatives were considered. This is not thinking. This is tyrannical conformity.
Faith is required to recognize many truths and doubt is its corollary. Counterfactuals like “What if God did not exist?” are often useful to consider to strengthen faith.
I do not find it helpful to suggest that the only proper opinions to express are the right opinions. The rightness of an opinion can often be best determined by comparing it to its alternatives. There is metaphysical truth and then there is epistemology. How are we to come to know this truth and once discovered, how are we to act concerning this truth? Such knowledge will require debate, if only with oneself.