Of all the rights embraced by Americans, free speech is probably one of the most sacrosanct and revered. Today I have the rude and unpleasant task of informing you that such a reverence is misplaced. For there is no such thing as free speech.
Not in the absence of private property that is. Property rights are the means by which speech is secured and thus liberated. In the absence of property rights, free speech is greatly imperiled.
It’s long been a source of amusement and annoyance to me that libertarians are so often derided for their emphasis on property rights as though their bias makes them carnal, materialistic creatures and perhaps most cruelly, “closet Republicans.” Leftists (it would be a tragic misuse of language to call them liberals) appear to believe that they are special creatures graced with the capacity to sneer at the petty and elemental thing that is property rights while endlessly praising the more intangible rights, like freedom of speech.
Given this climate of debate where the mentioning of property rights is seen as a crass and unwelcome faux pas, it is quite a natural regression for society to steadily decline into endless bickering about what can and can’t be said.
Sadly, this decline is nowhere more evident than at the center stage of academics, the university. At Cal Poly, as at other universities, the eggheads are increasingly devoted, not to curing cancer or AIDS, but to the exciting new task of creating exhaustive, impressive, and thoroughly restrictive speech codes. CARE-Net, the new Cal Poly speech police thrust into existence by the incident involving a noose at the Crops House, is a clear indicator of the time and resources that are being devoted to this new mission.
Despite the endless debate that certain types of speech and expression provokes, the vital consideration that remains woefully neglected is not so much what one says but where one says it.
The latter question recognizes the importance of property rights and preserves free speech to its fullest extent while confining it to the limitations imposed by property ownership. The former leads inevitably to restrictive and controlled speech, with the controller usually being the government.
The strongest defense of free speech, especially unpopular or unusual speech, is the right to property, the right to rent a hall and give a talk, rent a space of airtime on a television or radio show or a segment of a newspaper. When such rights to property are absent, the ramifications for free speech are devastating. There is a reason that the U.S. has been considered a bastion of freedom and expression for so long. It is not because Americans are particularly tolerant by nature. Most Europeans are much more so. But our society over the last 200 years has been much freer because there is a respect and acknowledgement for this idea that a person’s property is hallowed and inviolable. In this climate, speech, along with all other forms of expression, is granted a special security that is simply impossible absent property rights.
Consider the alternative, which is usually public property. Free speech on public property is really an illusion given that the term “public property” is practically a pseudonym for government property and the government always seeks to control what it claims ownership to.
Take the roads. They are “public,” but essentially controlled by the government, from the speed limits to the type of asphalt to the width of the lanes. Or consider Cal Poly, where last year during the 2008 election, the Students for Obama group attracted some undesired attention to themselves for chalking their candidate’s slogans all over campus. Unfortunately for the club, the fun did not last and they were sternly ordered by university officials to cease and, in so many words, clean up their scrawled messes. The club protested, citing a right to free speech which they believed was being unduly restricted.
Naturally, the club’s free speech was being limited because there really is no such thing as free speech in the public sphere; it is only as free as the government (or in this case, the Cal Poly administration) allows. In a free society, there is a nearly unlimited ability to chalk as many presidential slogans as one wishes in one’s own house, that is, on one’s own property. This is the reason libertarians place such an emphasis on private property. It is the one right that makes all the other rights possible. Without private property, free speech is limited to whatever the government considers acceptable. This is a frightening possibility, no matter what one’s political party.
Speaking of free speech, the Mustang Daily will be looking for someone to take over as the libertarian columnist for next year. This year I have had the honor of establishing a precedence that even small and neglected schools of thought deserve a role in the public forum. It has been a distinct pleasure to write in this capacity and I sincerely hope that the vacated space which I leave at the end of this year will be replaced by someone who can improve upon my humble beginnings.
I might also add that, despite my clumsiness and general inadequacies as a writer, this column has been one of the most well-read columns this year. I believe this speaks to the importance and appeal of the ideals and applications of the libertarian school of thought which, though almost boringly commonsensical, are decidedly unconventional and radical given the primitive and backward setting in which we find ourselves. This is an open casting call to any writers that might be up to the challenge. I encourage you to apply to be a columnist when the Mustang Daily announces next year’s columnist vacancies.
Jeremy Hicks is a 2008 political science graduate, the founder of the Cal Poly Libertarian Club and a Mustang Daily political columnist.