Sebastien Bishop


Should the government censor dangerous anti-vaccination propoganda? Should it restrict the praise of terrorist groups, or speech intended to promote discriminatory attitudes? In other words, should the government curb the advocacy of dangerous ideas and actions (i.e. 'harmful advocacy'), or should the government take a more permissive approach? 

Strong free speech supporters argue that citizens should be free to engage in and to hear harmful advocacy, arguing that restrictions are deeply objectionable at best, and, at worst, wholly impermissible. To support their position, strong free speech supporters have offered a wide range of arguments and ideas. One of the most interesting arguments revolves around the idea that restrictions on harmful advocacy are deeply insulting to citizens. The worry, broadly understood, is that this kind of censorship is demeaning, treats citizens as though they are stupid, or as though they are children.  As such, even when censorship is effective in preventing harms to citizens, it nonetheless comes at the significant political cost of failing to properly respect the citizenry at large. By contrast, so the thought goes, an alternative political scheme that prohibits censorship, or permits it only in exceptional cases, does a better job of respecting citizens as independent, rational, morally responsible agents. This alternative political system may, sometimes, be less effective at preventing speech harms. But it is a political system where citizens can stand tall and hold their heads high.

In this paper, I consider and reject three versions of the worry that censorship is insulting. §1 explores the idea that censorship is insulting qua involving a negative appraisal of the citizens being interfered with. The key idea here is that censorship involves a lack of what Stephen Darwall terms ‘appraisal respect’, insofar as the government is suggesting that citizens cannot be trusted to manage their own beliefs and intentions. Drawing on the work of Thomas Nagel, §2 explores the idea that censorship diminishes the political status of citizens. Finally, §3 explores the suggestion that censorship is incompatible with a full appreciation of the thinking nature of citizens, and thus involves a lack of what Darwall would term ‘recognition respect’.

The paper argues that censorship is not necessarily premised upon an insulting view of the citizenry. On the contrary, it argues that the best kind of censorship stems from a rich appreciation of the diverse range of capabilities, needs, vulnerabilities, and responsibilities of citizens, as well as the need for co-operation between citizens if societal flourishing is going to be achieved on a large scale. Granted, such a vision places an emphasis on the imperfections and liabilities of citizens – at least when compared to the rather solitary, highly intellectual creature one sometimes finds in the philosophical literature. Still, such a vision of citizens as imperfect falls well short of being genuinely insulting. To err is human. And there’s nothing insulting about being treated like a human.



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