Disagreements about Speech Limits

May 1, 2017
posted by Bob Bauer

Is there an exception to free speech if its purpose is to exclude from the conversation certain views or groups? Ulrich Baer and Ted Gup have written dueling commentaries on this question. Baer argues that campuses are right to deny a forum to speakers whose racist or misogynist message defines other voices as unworthy of participation in the debate. Gup answers that once the principle of free speech is abridged for any reason, the inevitable result is more power for those who have already have it, more danger for those who do not. The protection Baer believes he is extending to the marginalized and underprivileged will turn out to be the road to their further victimization. Gupta sees Baer as mistaken that an exception carved out for the most just or compassionate of reasons can be kept under control and not abused for baser purposes.

There is a strong echo of this argument in the conflicts over campaign finance regulation. Those who would like to see the imposition of tighter limits on campaign spending are often making a Baer-like argument, with a twist. They do not peg their point to the content of the paid message: It could be on any subject. But they believe that the capacity to spend heavily to promote one’s views is an act of domination over those who don’t have the resources to answer. The wealthy are establishing an exclusive forum for speech funded at that level: Only a few can participate. This is an affront to democratic self-governance. It is, to borrow Baer’s words, threatening to “equal access to pubic speech,” and limits serve to “ensure the conditions” of such speech.

So, seen through this perspective much like Baer’s, limits are justified. And, just as Baer argues, staunch campaign finance advocates have long maintained that speakers restricted in the use of one outlet for their views can always can turn to others. Those whose speech confronts limits are still free to hold their beliefs and express them, just not at liberty to spread them on whatever terms and in whatever ways they choose.

The Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo famously rejected the notion that the speech of some may be limited in order to lift up the speech of others. Gup goes farther, insisting that, even if speech limits are intended to have this leveling effect, they usually don’t. The historical record to which Gup appeals tends to show that well-intended speech restrictions end up working against the interests of the marginalized and underprivileged. Once limits on access to a forum may be set, choices of who may spend, and how much, must be made. Gup writes that“ the advocacy of a dynamic line between protected and unprotected speech grants a license to those in power to smother dissent of all sorts….”