The idea of free speech sounds great on paper, and it’s one of those nebulous concepts that most people, if you asked them if it sounded like a good idea, would generally affirm. But that hasn’t always been the case until very recently—more recently, in fact, than one might think. Dennis Baron explores this in You Can't Always Say What You Want: The Paradox of Free Speech along with a robust look at free-speech debates, legal precedents, and issues in the context of American history and civil rights. I received an eARC from NetGalley and Cambridge University Press, and I was excited to dive into this because the topic feels so timely and important given the current political climate.
Baron’s perspective is an interesting one: he is not a lawyer or law professor but rather a linguistics professor. Still, he knows his stuff. He has researched and written about free speech, and he has weighed in on court cases. You Can’t Always Say What You Want takes a historical but not quite chronological look at how the legal and social idea of freedom of speech has evolved in the United States. From the First versus Second Amendments to obscenity to what makes speech a threat, Baron guides us through the many quagmires that await anyone attempting to pin down what free speech actually means.
Prior to reading this book I was not, and am still not, a free-speech absolutist. Probably the best way to summarize my position is to say that I believe speech should have commensurate consequence. I think most free-speech absolutists are earnest but mistaken—that is, I don’t think there is a position of free-speech absolutism that is consistent with a stable, functioning liberal democracy. Beyond that, many who claim to believe in absolute free speech do so from a position of rhetorical dishonesty—invoking freedom of speech when, in actuality, they want to suppress the speech of their political and ideological opponents. In this way, free-speech absolutism becomes a form of camouflage.
Baron takes aim at both aspects of free-speech absolutism in this book. I spent a good deal of time reading it trying to infer his personal politics—when I first saw this title offered on NetGalley, I briefly worried it would be about cancel culture, etc., before I read the description and realized it was far more interesting than that. I get the sense that Baron and I agree on a lot of points, and where we might be in disagreement, it’s largely because (a) he knows more about this than I do and (b) he’s being a lot more diplomatic than I might. Baron is no fan of current interpretation of the Second Amendment, yet he also has criticism for liberal attempts to curtail free speech in the name of preventing, say, hate speech. Nevertheless, I suspect that conservative readers will see Baron as a woke ideologue, which says a lot more about how far right most American conservatives have been pulled in the past decade than it does about Baron’s alignment.
My main takeaway from this book is that very few of us really have a coherent concept of what we mean by free speech. The value of You Can’t Always Say What You Want is its grounding in primary source material. For the most part, this is not a polemic by Baron but a very well-researched tour through the United States Constitution, Supreme Court rulings, and other evidence. Baron explains how popular ideas of free speech depart from the actual text of the First Amendment. He helps us understand that amendment (and the Second Amendment) in historical context, as well as how the courts’ interpretations of the Constitution have changed over the years in things like obscenity trials and charges of sedition. Additionally, Baron emphasizes the ultimate futility of trying to codify free speech in something so brief as the First Amendment: language is imprecise, and the Founding Fathers themselves debated exactly how to phrase the amendment.
My main criticism of this book is that Baron’s writing is not always engaging. He repeats himself, both within and across chapters. In particular he really harps on the idea that freedom to bear arms suppresses freedom of speech for some groups—and hey, I don’t disagree, but the way this theme recurs throughout the book felt redundant rather than emphatic. He quotes at length from the primary sources I just extolled. Though still reasonably accessible for an academic work, I think the layperson will need to take their time walking through this one.
It’s worth it though. Our society’s idea of freedom of speech has always and will always evolve as our society evolves. At the moment, it feels like we are moving somewhat backwards, and that scares me. But this book didn’t scare me. It reassured me in the way that any knowledge reassures me—I went into this book with a certain idea of free speech, trusting Baron to challenge me. He did that, and while my position hasn’t changed dramatically, I feel much more informed about the topic, and I can recognize now where my thinking previously lacked depth or foundation. The debate about free speech is far from over, but I personally feel like I understand it better as a result of reading this book.