Can We Distinguish Between Free Speech And “Just Access”?

Aug 4th, 2018 | By | Category: Featured Issues, Politics & Current Events

We live in an age where incendiary phrases such as “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and harsh, accusatory, bullying speech are the new normal.  In addition, because of the internet and our civilization’s commitment to free speech, radical, extreme views on almost any subject are readily available to everyone.  Tragically, there is therefore very little room for critical analysis of what is being said or what is being argued.  It is almost impossible to have a reasoned, well-thought-through discussion about anything today.  If your sentiments are politically liberal, you watch MSNBC; if your sentiments are politically conservative and pro-Trump, you watch Fox News.  What Sean Hannity or what Rachel Maddow declare is absolute truth.  Any plea for civility or reasonable debate or discussion falls on deaf ears today.   Ann Hartle, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Emory University, makes this observation:


Over the past few decades, we have heard repeated calls for greater civility in our public life. At the same time, the demand for greater civility is often exposed as the mask for an attempt to silence one’s opponents and to shut down free speech. Both things are true: civility has declined, and in some cases accusing one’s opponent of incivility is a way to silence him.  Attempts to reconcile the practice of civility with the right of free speech increasingly lead in fact to restrictions on speech that are supposed to protect everyone—or at least certain groups—from being offended. This is especially so on college campuses. Precisely where one might expect the greatest freedom of speech, “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” are now the norm.


The conflict between civility and free speech cannot be resolved by any code of conduct or speech. The clash of my right to free speech and your right not to be offended leads to an impasse that is impossible to resolve on the level of rights. The impasse reveals our confusion over what civility is and what it is not. Civility is not a code of conduct but a virtue, a moral character that cannot be reduced to rules . . . Civility is actually the overcoming of the will to power, the natural desire to dominate others, not a mask for covering over that natural political attitude. Without civility, there is only the will to power. And in order for civility to exist, there must be something higher, more important, than politics.

In contrast to Hartle’s wise reflection, Bryan W. Van Norden, Professor of Philosophy at Wuhan University, makes the case for distinguishing between free speech and “just access”:  “I suggest that we could take a big step forward by distinguishing free speech from just access.  Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource.  Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole.  There is a clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas.”  How does Van Norden justify restricting access (his words are “just access”) to ideas, opinions, and arguments in the public media or on college campuses for example?


  • First, Van Norden goes back to the classic 1859 essay by English philosopher John Stuart Mill, entitled “On Liberty.” Mill basically argued for the freedom of speech in near absolute terms.  To claim that an unpopular or offensive opinion cannot be true “is to assume our own infallibility.” To limit its expression is clearly bad for society:  If an opinion is partly true, we should listen to it, because “It is only by the collision of adverse opinions, that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”  Unless a true view is challenged, we will hold it merely “in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds.”  Van Norden rejects Mill’s argument:  “If you do have faith in a universal method of reasoning that everyone accepts, then the Millian defense of absolute free speech is sound. What harm is there in people hearing obvious falsehoods and specious argumentation if any sane and minimally educated person can see through them.  The problem, though, is that humans are not rational in the way Mill assumes.”
  • Second, Van Norden approvingly adopts the observation of the radical, Marxist philosopher of the 1960s—Herbert Marcuse, who wrote in 1965: “In endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.”   Thus, Van Norden concludes, “This form of ‘free speech,’ ironically, supports the tyranny of the majority.  The media are motivated primarily by getting the largest audience possible.  This leads to a skewed conception about which controversial perspectives deserve airtime, and what ‘both sides’ of an issue are . . . No wonder we are experiencing what Marcuse described as ‘the systematic moronization of children and adults alike by publicity and propaganda.’”  To his credit, Van Norden rejects Marcuse’s solution, which was to use the power of the state to suppress “right-wing perspectives.”  He correctly concludes this would be “immoral” and “impractical.”  Instead, Van Norden argues for distinguishing between free speech and just access.
  • Finally, Van Norden cites the example of Charles Murray, well-published sociologist whose books are arguably controversial. For Van Norden, colleges and universities should deny him access to their campuses because his views are “junk science.”  In their denial, “these prestigious institutions . . . [are] excercis[ing] their fiduciary responsibility as the gatekeepers of rational discourse.”  For Van Norden, “what just access means in terms of positive policy is that institutions that are the gatekeepers to the public have a fiduciary responsibility to award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers.”  In doing so, institutions thereby “display admirable intellectual open-mindedness.  It is to take a positive stand that these views are within the realm of defensible rational discourse, and that these people are worth taking seriously as thinkers . . . The invincibly ignorant and the intellectual huckster have every right to express their opinions, but their right to free speech is not the right to an audience.”


To say that Van Norden’s “just access” proposal is controversial is an understatement!  A few observations and questions:


  1. His rejection of the classic argument of John Stuart Mill is stunning to me.  In addition, he seems to be rejecting much of the argument of the Enlightenment when it comes to truth and how we as humans can discern truth.  His embrace of the radical Marxist Herbert Marcuse is equally stunning to me.  This nation embraced free speech as a foundational virtue of our civilization (e.g., see the First Amendment of the Constitution).  To advocate for “just access” would seem to violate that virtue.


  1. Because he does not approve of some of the views articulated on cable TV or on the internet, he proposes that we as a civilization distinguish between free speech and “just access.”  He writes:  “Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole.”  Is this a reasonable solution?  His proposal begs several sensible questions: Who will decide what constitutes “merit”?  Who decides what benefits “the community as a whole”?  What are the criteria?  Who will compose these criteria?  Will it be the state?  Bureaucrats?  Van Norden?  Who are all the varied “gatekeepers” who have “a fiduciary responsibility to award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers?”  There is strong evidence of arrogance, even hubris, in what he is proposing.  I do not agree with everything Charles Murray argues, but his work is based on social science research and offers a plausible argument that needs to be discussed and answered, not shut down.


Van Norden has written a thought-provoking, yet rather frightening article.  It smacks of an intellectual smugness and arrogance from the left-wing that is just as dangerous as those coming from the right.  It is not a reasonable or workable solution to Ann Hartle’s call for greater civility in our public life.  It is instead results in what she calls “the will to power,” not civility.


See Ann Hartle, “Liberal Education and the Civil Character,” Modern Age (Summer 2018, vol. 60:3) and Bryan W. Van Norden, “The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience,” in the New York Times (25 June 2018).

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