It’s been a banner month for people who love invoking the “free speech” buzzword. Whether Elon Musk was promoting it as a catch-all abstract value to justify inviting transphobes and neo-nazis back to Twitter, or mainstream journalists were invoking the idea in response to a petulant billionaire banning his critics from the large social media company he just purchased for $44 billion, everyone these past few weeks has had some opinion on “free speech,” what it means, and who its supposed champion—or, more often than not, its most hypocritical defender—truly is.

What the conversation has been largely lacking (other than a coherent definition of “free speech”) is a serious acknowledgment that free speech as a concept means very little if we don’t discuss how massive asymmetries in the distribution of power and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny few effectively determine who has the right to speak freely and who doesn’t. If you, like me, are trying to understand why this debate seems so repetitive and tedious, it’s because its terms are deliberately vague and don’t address a whole picture of what rights mean, or ought to mean. To understand this, we need to first have a discussion about negative rights versus positive rights. 

What the conversation has been largely lacking (other than a coherent definition of “free speech”) is a serious acknowledgment that free speech as a concept means very little if we don’t discuss how massive asymmetries in the distribution of power and the accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny few effectively determine who has the right to speak freely and who doesn’t.

Negative rights and positive rights are both critically important to any definition of “freedom,” and they necessarily complement each other: one without the other doesn’t amount to much. Positive rights are basic, life-sustaining things one ought to be entitled to if one is to enjoy and exercise the freedom that comes with having the necessities for comfortable living taken care of (ie., healthcare, housing, education, food, a basic living standard, etc.). Think Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, which included “freedom from want”—an idea many on the right found communistic and vulgar when he gave his famous speech in 1941. Over the course of its young nationhood, the US and its citizens have developed a peculiar allergy to the concept of positive rights; instead of seeing the universal guarantee of life-sustaining provisions like housing and healthcare as enhancing the freedom of individuals to live, act, and think unburdened by the life-threatening need to secure said provisions on their own, the entrenched American common sense is that such guarantees amount to “handouts” and state overreach that, somehow, makes us less free. The concept of negative rights, on the other hand, is something we are more much more familiar with: they offer protection from oppression and persecution, namely in the realm of government imposition. Negative rights, that is, safeguard the freedoms of individuals—freedom of speech, assembly, religion, freedom of due process, the right not to self incriminate—from any attempts by the state, whether intentional or by accident, to limit individuals’ ability to exercise said freedoms. 

Broadly speaking, in capitalist countries, the idea of positive rights—who gets meaningful access to the platforms and material conditions required to speak and be heard—never factors into any conversations about “free speech.” For instance, as I wrote in a Substack column last year, the debate around the creation of the University of Austin, billed as a would-be bastion of “free speech” by many of the same players (like Bari Weiss) who always play an outsized role in shaping such debates when they invariably begin anew, never addressed the fact that precisely none of those who signed up to combat the so-called “censorious left” have ever said anything about the 2.3 million incarcerated people in the US who have virtually no free speech rights. That’s merely one example of how elite-dominated “free speech” discourse reflects the selective and self-serving attempts to define the freedom in question by those who have more of it than others but refuse to acknowledge why. 

Broadly speaking, in capitalist countries, the idea of positive rights—who gets meaningful access to the platforms and material conditions required to speak and be heard—never factors into any conversations about “free speech.”

Then there are the issues of corporate surveillance and the illegal undermining of union organizers’ “free speech.” On the former, I—and many others—have warned about the dangers and pitfalls of Big Tech partnering with security services to curate what we do and don’t see on social media. (Though all prior installments of the “Twitter Files” had been nakedly geared toward generating outrage among the Fox News set, it’s important to note Tuesday’s revelation that the Pentagon had worked with Twitter on a sustained psyops campaign is legitimately newsworthy). Regarding free speech rights at work, scholars and labor organizers have documented how internal surveillance tech, spying on and monitoring workers’ activities and interpersonal communications, renders any concept of “free speech” at the workplace, where we spend almost half our waking lives, a complete joke. There are many richer, more original ways of approaching the slogan of “free speech”—power dynamics, psyops, workplace suppression of speech—but we ignore those in favor of boilerplate negative-rights-centered conversations about who is and isn’t banned from a specific social media platform

Pointing out Musk’s hypocrisy on the topic is playing the game on easy mode, so I won’t bother, but suffice it to say, in our broader public debates around “free speech,” the plight of the poor, dispossessed, imprisoned, and marginalized simply don’t factor in. Because the average American commentator has zero concept of—or ideological commitment to—a parallel regime of positive rights that would give these negative rights any real-world purchase or liberatory power.  

Pointing out Musk’s hypocrisy on the topic is playing the game on easy mode, so I won’t bother, but suffice it to say, in our broader public debates around “free speech,” the plight of the poor, dispossessed, imprisoned, and marginalized simply don’t factor in.

This is not a new concept, of course. As James Peck notes in his 2011 book Ideal Illusions, positive rights were central to the United Nations’ 30-point “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” written in 1948. Labor rights and the tenets of economic equality can be seen peppered throughout the document, though they didn’t end up impacting much in terms of the shaping and enforcement of post-Cold War international law. Just the same, the founder of the liberal rights organization Human Rights Watch, Aryeh Neier, somewhat infamously rejected positive rights as inherently oppressive, writing in his 2003 memoir Taking Liberties, “I oppose the concept of economic rights… The concept of economic and social rights is profoundly undemocratic.” He would add later that “Authoritarian power is probably a prerequisite for giving meaning to economic and social rights.” 

For Western capitalist countries, we have been imbued—and indoctrinated—with only half the equation. For the most part (with exceptions), we will get the negative rights, but are denied positive rights both in practice and as part of our civic education. In this framework, where a narrowly defined “freedom from” takes unquestioned precedence over “freedom to,” white nationalists like Charles Murray being deplatformed at Middlebury College is the cause of great consternation and debate, but thousands dying each year from homelessness largely doesn’t register even a blip in public consciousness. Perhaps people will feel vaguely sad about an unfortunate reality, but nothing as visceral or outrageous as the average American’s response to the perceived violating of our rights

How much “free speech” do I have if my ability to speak freely is cut short because I’ve died from preventable disease? How much “free speech” do I have if I’m imprisoned by a racist criminal justice system that criminalizes poverty? How much “free speech” do I have if I can’t lobby my co-workers to unionize without getting fired and potentially facing homelessness as a result?

Take a more recent example of this shallow framework: Last September, The Atlantic published a widely praised article by the American Enterprise Institute’s Sally Satel that lamented how the left is increasingly “authoritarian” on the topic of “free speech.” As is often the case with this discourse, the reader was treated to a litany of intellectually incurious, power-flattering pseudo-social science that dismisses as “authoritarian,” without nuance or skepticism, cherry-picked leftwing slogans like, “We need to replace the established order by any means necessary,” and “Getting rid of inequality is more important than free speech”—all under the assumption that the status quo and the pressures of normalized mass poverty aren’t “authoritarian” and have no bearing whatsoever on people’s ability to be free and live freely. To Satel and the researchers she references, the absence of positive rights such as housing, education, and healthcare are not authoritarian. People dying on the streets is not authoritarian. Being forced to work in sweatshop conditions for bare survival is not authoritarian. This is a capitalist liberal view of human rights, but it is not a universal or ideology-free view. 

One can view liberal negative rights as important (as the left most assuredly should), but absent positive rights of economic security, healthcare, food, and basic living standards, they amount to little more than buzzwords with little to no practical value. How much “free speech” do I have if my ability to speak freely is cut short because I’ve died from preventable disease? How much “free speech” do I have if I’m imprisoned by a racist criminal justice system that criminalizes poverty? How much “free speech” do I have if I can’t lobby my co-workers to unionize without getting fired and potentially facing homelessness as a result?  Moreover, according to Satel, violent revolutions are, by definition,  “authoritarian”; thus, poor farmers in the Global South who have been exploited for hundreds of years are simply supposed to ask the ruling class nicely for basic economic security and rights if they want change to happen. A pretty convenient framework, indeed, for a corporate-funded lobbying front like the American Enterprise Institute.

This isn’t to say the left, historically, hasn’t rallied around “free speech” as a virtue worth defending. Quite the opposite, in fact. From Eugene V. Debs and Ricardo Flores Magón to Sacco and Vanzetti, the left knows the costs of not having the right to speak and dissent freely. Radical syndicalists in the early 20th century, like the founders and members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), engaged in so-called “free speech fights” that challenged the legality of laws preventing free assembly and picketing. Composed of socialists and anarchists, the IWW used the negative rights protections of the First Amendment to defend and protect its right to create “one big union” as a mechanism for transitioning to a classless society that would be defined by, first and foremost, a regime of positive rights of abundance and equality. 

“Free speech” has historically never had a fixed meaning beyond Enlightenment vibes of engaging in open inquiry and not allowing state governments to censor people for pure political expression. But since most of those evoking it over the past few weeks are filling their diapers to defend Libs of TikTok’s inalienable right to dox and target non-public figures for anti-trans, anti-gay hate crimes, one can be excused for cynically doubting that the spirit of John Stuart Mill animates their plight.

The New Left of the early-to-mid 1960s kicked off the “Free Speech Movement” on college campuses, similarly invoking the rights guaranteed in the US Constitution to defend protests for civil rights, women’s rights, and opposing the Vietnam War. Like the IWW, the 1960s left used the popular banner of “free speech” to advance a positive rights agenda. As essayist Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker last year, “the students didn’t really want free speech, or only free speech. They wanted institutional and social change. But they pursued a tactic aimed at co-opting the faculty. The faculty had good reasons for caution about associating themselves with controversial political positions. But free speech was what the United States stood for. It was the banner carried into the battles against McCarthyism and loyalty oaths. Free speech no liberal could in good conscience resist.”

Put another way: it was a slogan that served a purpose, and the vagueness of that slogan meant that it could be used for good or bad. For instance, since the reactionary anti-political-correctness movement of the early 1990’s, “free speech” can, and largely has, been a banner carried by the right to open up space for ideas and concepts that had fallen out of favor since the rise of social equality movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They needed “free speech” not to protect workers’ right to unionize, not to oppose war, not to defend the right to protest injustice, but to be assholes in a socially acceptable way. There is no hypocrisy among the left or right because there is no—and there never has been—any true Universal Principle at work. Because “free speech” has historically never had a fixed meaning beyond Enlightenment vibes of engaging in open inquiry and not allowing state governments to censor people for pure political expression. But since most of those evoking it over the past few weeks are filling their diapers to defend Libs of TikTok’s inalienable right to dox and target non-public figures for anti-trans, anti-gay hate crimes, one can be excused for cynically doubting that the spirit of John Stuart Mill animates their plight. 

A more substantive and holistic argument is needed, based on discussions about how we can broaden and make more meaningful “free speech” rights by empowering and platforming marginalized voices, providing people with basic needs, and democratizing media control out of the hands of unaccountable corporations and capricious billionaires.

Indeed, by and large, the unchecked, buzzy sanctity of liberal negative rights absent any consideration for how positive rights enhance people’s ability to live free is an inherently bourgeois moral framework, and one shouldn’t fall for the trap of only debating the scope and criteria of this one half of the rights equation. It’s this negative-rights-only framework that dominates these “debates” on both the Trumpist, Muskian, Trigger The Libs right and on the side occupied by mainstream liberal critics. But it’s an incomplete framework designed to uphold the hierarchical societal arrangements that make human rights conditional on one’s place within the hierarchy—a framework that is simultaneously too coy with defending the idea of negative rights (for instance, dismissing Musk’s “free speech” rhetoric only on the grounds that he himself is being hypocritical), and too accepting of the right’s bad-faith framing of the debate itself.  

A more substantive and holistic argument is needed, based on discussions about how we can broaden and make more meaningful “free speech” rights by empowering and platforming marginalized voices, providing people with basic needs, and democratizing media control out of the hands of unaccountable corporations and capricious billionaires. Only then can the cycle of endless “free speech” gotchas move beyond the predictable back and forth and address much more urgent and relevant questions about who owns the platforms people speak on, who has access to them, and who is silenced not only by Twitter shadowbans or FBI content moderators, but also by poverty, racism, incarceration, and preventable death.

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson hosts the Citations Needed podcast and writes at The Column on Substack. Follow him @adamjohnsonNYC.