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The Dartmouth
February 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Alexander defends free speech

Constitutional law professor and self-proclaimed "free-speech hawk" Lawrence Alexander questioned the inherent human right to freedom of speech in a lecture Monday sponsored by the Rockefeller Center.

Alexander's talk described his struggle to reconcile the need for limited free speech with the benefits of open expression, themes he explores in his new book, "Is There a Right of Freedom of Expression?"

While conducting research for his book, Alexander said he concluded that he was unable to substantiate any of the already existing and widely accepted theories that justify freedom of speech as a human right. But he hopes another person will be able to draw up a new, justifiable theory.

In his speech, Alexander referenced points Frederick Schauer '67 Tu'68 made in his book.

Disproving the argument that freedom of speech promotes truth, Alexander reiterated three points from Schauer's book: speech sometimes leads to falsehood, the government limits other methods of finding truth and sometimes the truth is not valuable enough to justify the harm caused in its search.

Alexander also refuted the justification for free speech as a necessity for a democracy, saying that this claim implies free speech is not a right of those under different governments.

According to Alexander, when the government limits freedom of speech, it is trying to protect citizens from harm. He distinguished between one-step harm, in which the harm caused is the actual spreading of information, and two-step harm, which describes subsequent harm caused.

"There are plenty of good reasons that are sometimes historically and culturally specific for protecting various domains of freedom of speech. There are all sorts of good reasons for not suppressing bad speech that is harmful," he said. "I couldn't find any sort of general, transhistorical, transcultural principled moral right to freedom of expression."

Alexander also distinguished between track-one laws, which the government establishes to block certain harmful messages and track-two laws, which indirectly limit freedom of speech. Almost all laws, Alexander said, can be categorized as track-two laws. Therefore, by asserting that a law limits freedom of expression, an infinite number of other laws could be legally challenged in the same way.

"While these laws all have speech effects, it's impossible to gauge what they are and, of course, if a court were to invalidate any of the laws in the set, there would then be a different set of laws and those laws would have speech effects," Alexander said.

The lecture, part of the Rockefeller Center's Roger Aaron lecture series, closed with an extensive question-and-answer session, an opportunity students and local citizens in attendance used to further discuss freedom of speech with Alexander.

Alexander teaches and writes in the areas of constitutional law, criminal law and jurisprudence. He serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Ethics and Law & Philosophy and Legal Theory.

Part of the Dartmouth legal studies program, the event was co-sponsored by the Dartmouth Lawyers Association.