Pornography, Hate Speech, and Their Challenge to Dworkin's Egalitarian Liberalism

Public Affairs Quarterly 23 (4):357-373 (2009)
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Contemporary egalitarian liberals—unlike their classical counterparts—have lived through many contentious events where the right to freedom of expression has been tested to its limits—the Skokie, Illinois, skinhead marches, hate speech incidents on college campuses, Internet pornography and hate speech sites, Holocaust deniers, and cross-burners, to name just a few. Despite this contemporary tumult, freedom of expression has been nearly unanimously affirmed in both the U.S. jurisprudence and philosophical discourse. In what follows, I will examine Ronald Dworkin's influential contemporary justification for freedom of expression, which claims that a thoroughgoing right to freedom of expression is justified by the fact that it guarantees and preserves liberalism's commitment to equality by offering everyone an opportunity to speak, whereas any other policy, such as state regulation, would fail to offer this equal opportunity. This justification has been challenged by feminists and critical race theorists, who find the cases of pornography and hate speech to be sufficient threats to the freedom of expression and equality of their targets—women and minorities—to warrant limiting freedom of expression in these cases. I will argue that if Dworkin is to take equality as seriously as he claims to, then, by his own lights, he must back away from an unrestricted freedom of expression, in light of these distinctly contemporary challenges of the harms of systemic racism and sexism, which underlie hate speech and pornography.
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