Limiting Free Speech (52): Government Compelled Speech

The human right to free speech protects people against compelled silence, but can and should it also protect them against compelled speech? I think in general the answer is yes. Free speech guarantees freedom, and freedom in any definition of the word should include both the freedom to do and not to do. Hence free speech rights include both the right to speak freely and the right to remain silent – or, in other words, the right not to be anyone’s coerced messenger. (In general, it’s true that a right to do something also includes a right not to do it. More here).

A sophist might reply: “Isn’t free speech about being allowed to speak your own mind? If so, wouldn’t that leave it open for the government to compel you to utter what is not on your mind, as long as this is not incompatible with what is on your mind?” Precious little of our freedom would be left if this were true. This kind of justification for coercion requires more than the statement that what people are coerced to say is not incompatible with the views of those who are coerced.

So, if we accept that free speech in general includes the right not to be compelled to speak, what about possible exceptions? Are there not some forms of compelled speech that are legitimate exceptions to free speech? Most of us (outside the US at least) have little trouble accepting health warnings on cigarette packaging. The same is true for legal requirements that fundraisers disclose their donors, or advertising rules mandating the display of the total fare – including taxes and fees – in bigger type than other fare information.

However, we can just as well cite examples of legally compelled speech that are much more troubling. Some states in the US requires doctors, under the rubric of “informed consent”, to warn abortion patients that the procedure places them at “increased risk of suicide”. Other US states issue car license plates with religious symbols or messages. I find this difficult to understand: those are two forms of compelled speech that are allowed under US law whereas warnings on cigarette packaging are not, even though the latter are obviously less troubling from a human rights point of view.

Perhaps the factual truth of the speech that is being compelled should determine whether or not the compelled speech is legitimate. In that case, cigarette warnings are OK, but the above cited abortion warning is not. Still, that’s not satisfactory: few of us would want to live in a state that compels us to say 1+1=2 before each meal. And what is truth anyway? Also, what about compelled messages that aren’t about truth, such as the pledge of allegiance?

A much better rule is the following: compelled speech is allowed only if it is necessary and effective in order to protect human rights. Cigarette warnings would still be OK (health is a human right), to the extent that they are necessary and effective (this is an empirical matter). Disclosure requirements for fundraisers would also be OK (democracy is also a human right), under the same conditions. Even false information could then be part of compelled speech, as long as it furthers the cause of rights: one can imagine a situation in which forcing someone to lie to a terrorist can save lives.

A final remark: compelled speech is not always compelled by the government. Someone distributing leaflets in a restaurant, giving the impression that the restaurant owner endorses the content of the leaflets, is also engaging in a form of compelled speech. This form is equally unacceptable, at least as long as the leaflets don’t serve an important human rights goal, and one that is important enough to override the right to free speech and the right to private property of the restaurant owner.

More about the right not to speak. More posts in this series.


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