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I would like to explore in this essay one aspect of the contemporary American debate over the theory of freedom of speech and press. The subject I want to address is this: whether the principle of freedom of speech and press should be viewed as protecting some personal or individual interest in speaking and writing or whether it should be seen as fostering a collective or public interest. Sometimes this issue is stated as being whether the first amendment protects a "right to speak" or a "right to hear," though in general the problem seems to be whether we should conceive of the principle as securing speech against government intervention without regard to the potential benefits that speech offers for the larger society, or rather only because of them.

These alternative statements of the purposes of the first amendment were present at the very beginnings of our modem free speech jurisprudence. Thus, we have Zechariah Chafee's early summary description of the purposes of the first amendment:

The First Amendment protects two kinds of interests in free speech. There is an individual interest, the need of many men to express their opinions on matters vital to them if life is to be worth living, and a social interest in the attainment of truth, so that the country may not only adopt the wisest course of action but carry it out in the wisest way.

Brandeis' concurring opinion in Whitney v. California is another survey of first amendment functions that appears to encompass the two conceptions.


Communications Law | First Amendment