The shape of free speech: rethinking liberal free speech theory

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Noting the apparent inconsistency in attitudes towards free speech with respect to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in western liberal democracies, this article works through the problem of inconsistency within liberal free speech theory, arguing that this symptomatically reveals an aporia that exposes the inability of liberal free speech theory to account for the ways in which free speech actually operates in liberal social orders. Liberal free speech theory conceptualizes liberty as smooth, continuous, homogeneous, indivisible and extendable without interruption until it reaches the outer limits. This makes it difficult for liberal free speech theory to account for restrictions that lie within those outer limits, and therefore for the ways in which restraints, restrictions and closures are always already at work within the lived experience of liberty, for it is these – and the inconsistencies they give rise to – that give freedom its particular texture and timbre in any given social and cultural context. The article concludes with an alternative ‘liquid’ theory of free speech, which accounts for the ‘shaping’ of liberty by social forces, culture and institutional practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)503-517
Number of pages15
Issue number4
Early online date11 Jun 2018
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2018


  • Free speech
  • freedom of expression
  • liberalism
  • John Stuart Mill
  • antisemitism
  • Islamophobia
  • Liquidity

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