Free Speech as a Special Right
UVA Law Faculty Affiliations
Many theorists treat free speech as a special right. Other theorists argue that, in order for free speech to be important, it must be a special right, but they conclude that it is not. What the term “special right” means in these contexts, however, remains elusive. The term usually suggests that the right in question is distinguishable from the usual governmental decision making processes and from other rights. But just how distinctive the right must be, and in what ways, is rarely defined clearly. Indeed, many discussions of free speech assume quite demanding criteria for a special right of freedom of speech, even as these criteria remain incompletely articulated.
This paper seeks to define the criteria for a special right. It argues that the idea of a special right actually conceals two separate requirements. First, a special right must be distinct, in that the activities covered by the right must be analytically distinguishable from the activities outside of it. Second, a special right must be robust in the protection it affords. Most theories demand that a free speech right be highly distinctive, if not singular, and that it receive highly robust protection. By contrast, this paper posits that distinctiveness is a requirement of a special right only to a minimal extent and robustness, as commonly understood, not at all. On the revised criteria offered here, it seems possible that speech may after all be special, though the free speech right we want may be different from the one we can have.