Beyond Rights: Liberalism’s Responses to Hateful Viewpoints



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Beyond Rights: Liberalism’s Responses to Hateful Viewpoints

Abstract: Hate groups are often thought to reveal a paradox in liberal thinking. On the one hand, such groups challenge the very foundations of liberal thought, including core values of equality and autonomy. On the other hand, these same values give rise to rights protections, including freedom of expression and association, which protect these groups. In this paper I suggest, in part by drawing on John Stuart Mill, how this seeming paradox might be resolved. I argue that the illiberal beliefs and some of the practices of hate groups should be protected by rights but also publicly criticized by the state and its citizens. Distinguishing between two overarching ways of framing state action—coercive and non-coercive—I contend that such criticism should be pursued through the state’s non-coercive capacities as speaker, educator, and spender.




I. Introduction

Hate groups are often seen as posing a hard test case for liberal theory. On the one hand, liberals espouse a commitment to the values of free and equal citizenship. Yet this commitment is widely considered to entail toleration of illiberal groups that oppose it. Critics of liberalism have suggested that because of this willingness to tolerate groups that oppose the most basic values of liberal theory, liberalism is faced with an irresolvable paradox: its commitment to rights entails protection of inequality in the “private realms” of civil society and the family, which undermines its public commitment to equal citizenship.1 Communitarian critics suggest a variant on this criticism when they worry that liberalism’s neutrality and its protection of rights prevent public values from being infused into the culture.2

In this essay, I respond to the contention that liberalism is founded on an untenable contradiction between its commitments to rights and to its own values. Focusing on the case of hate groups in civil society, I argue that liberal theory can and should oppose their beliefs and simultaneously protect their rights. Specifically, I argue that the concerns to respect rights and to promote the basic values of free and equal citizenship can both be achieved with the aid of a distinction between the coercive and non-coercive roles of the state. Although rights protections are central to limiting state power in its coercive role, which uses the threat of criminal sanction, they do not similarly limit policy in the state’s non-coercive roles as educator, speaker, and spender. In these roles, the state does not regulate expression; rather, it expresses itself. I rely on this distinction in proposing and defending an approach to “framing” various responses to hate groups. Such groups have seemed to present a hard case for liberals because of an exclusive emphasis in the literature on questions of forceful coercive intervention, particularly whether they should be banned through criminal law. In contrast, when the issue of state responses to hate groups is viewed from the perspective of the state in its non-coercive roles, liberal theory can recommend state opposition to such groups through promotion of public values, such as equality, without sacrificing the protection of rights. As my title suggests, therefore, I emphasize a plurality of liberal responses to hate groups and abandon a singular focus on liberalism’s coercive response to such groups.

The distinction between the state in its coercive role, by which I refer specifically to its threat of sanction, and the state in its non-coercive capacities is particularly salient in understanding the role of “neutrality” in liberal theory. I first distinguish between “hateful viewpoints” protected by the First Amendment and “hateful threats” that are not. I clarify why the doctrine of “viewpoint neutrality” should protect hateful viewpoints when we are evaluating whether the state can seek coercively to change belief through threat of sanction. Although there is a role for viewpoint neutrality in liberal accounts of rights, however, I argue that this does not entail that the state must be viewpoint- or value-neutral. Specifically, citizens and the state in its roles as speaker, spender, and educator, rightly promote the core values of political legitimacy in response to hateful viewpoints. In these capacities, the state rightly promotes values central to political legitimacy and does not act as a viewpoint-neutral regulator of ideas.

In sum, this essay suggests the means by which public values should be promoted in “private” life and why this commitment does not entail abandoning dedication to rights. It points, moreover, to an alternative to a certain “spatial” understanding of the public/private distinction. Rights do not cordon off civil society as a private space “immune” from public justification or public values. Liberals, rather, should both protect civil society groups from coercive intervention and oppose these groups when they challenge liberalism’s core values.
II. Neutrality in Context

In Virginia v. Black3, the United States Supreme Court considered two sets of facts in analyzing whether a Virginia law outlawing cross burning violated the First Amendment. In the first set of facts, Jonathan O’Mara and Richard Elliot burned a cross on the lawn of an African-American family in retaliation for an altercation earlier in the day. In the second, Barry Black led a rally of the Ku Klux Klan on a field. There was no trespass in this case and the cross was burned during a rally where Klan members made speeches about the inferiority of African-Americans.

In its ruling, the Court distinguished between these two cases. In the first case, the Court relied on its doctrine of fighting words, elaborated in its Chaplinsky decision, and held that such cross burning behavior was not protected.4 The burning of the cross constituted a direct threat aimed at a particular family, and thus did not amount to protected political speech. At the same time, the Court ruled that, in the case of Barry Black, there was political speech that deserved protection. The rally was not aimed at particular individuals and constituted speech that was both racist and protected. On the Court’s doctrine of viewpoint neutrality, any political speech – no matter how vile – merits First Amendment protection. In elaborating the Court’s distinction, it is helpful to distinguish between “hateful threats” that are not protected by viewpoint neutrality and “hateful viewpoints” that are. Both are rooted in racism, but whereas the former is an unprotected threat, the latter constitutes protected belief.

Taking the Court’s distinction as a starting point, I want to move beyond case law to inquire into the role of viewpoint neutrality in liberal theory. Although constitutional doctrine is often a useful starting point in theorizing, legal decisions are often under-theorized for myriad reasons and so it is necessary to place them within the scope of a wider understanding of political legitimacy. My contention is that while the Court’s doctrine is important in responding to the issue of whether hateful political viewpoints should be combated through threat of sanction, it is but one liberal response to the dilemma posed by hate groups. Specifically, the doctrine of viewpoint neutrality should not be confused with the idea that the state is neutral with regard to activities and beliefs of groups like the Klan. Although rights might be thought to cordon off such groups into a protected private realm, it would be incorrect to consider this an implication of the doctrine of viewpoint neutrality.

In avoiding this conflation, it is important to distinguish between the public relevance of liberalism’s core values to civil society and the issue of whether groups should be sanctioned for their beliefs. Specifically, while the Klan should be protected from sanction, it is clear that its mission is in tension with core liberal values. Although liberal theory rightly defends rights that limit direct enforcement of these values against groups like the Klan, this concern is consistent with the promotion of non-coercive ways of combating groups that directly challenge liberal values.

In elaborating the distinction between public relevance and forceful imposition of public values, it is helpful to look at the justification of viewpoint neutrality in liberal theory. Doing so helps to frame the Court’s doctrine and to clarify why it suggests neither the state’s viewpoint neutrality nor that hate groups fall within a protected “private” realm. For Alexander Meiklejohn, the defense of viewpoint neutrality can be elaborated through the metaphor of a town meeting.5 On his view, while the moderator of such a meeting could limit speakers for reasons of time and to ensure that they stay on point, to limit speakers based on the substance of their comments clearly would limit the meeting’s democratic ambitions. Such a limitation would prevent fellow meeting participants from hearing a variety of arguments for or against the measure they were considering. It would also limit their ability to express their own views on these measures. Such limitations would impede the autonomy necessary for citizens truly to be the source of their own democratic decisions and so undermine the democratic ideal. Meiklejohn thus defends viewpoint neutrality by reference to a deeper value of democracy.

Similarly, John Rawls’ defense of viewpoint neutrality stresses the link between this doctrine and political legitimacy. For Rawls, an ideal legitimate society would be governed by public reason; in other words, citizens would appeal to reasons that respect their common status as equal citizens.6 In order for that ideal to be instantiated, however, the state must tolerate the expression of reasons that are at odds with the ideal. Without such guarantees, public reason could never be freely exercised, and society would never realize Rawls’ ideal.

What I want to emphasize about both of these defenses of viewpoint neutrality, however, is that they are couched in a wider concern to protect a set of core values linked to legitimacy. For both Mieklejohn and Rawls, viewpoint neutrality is not a self-evident end of the state, but, rather, is linked to a wider set of values required for political legitimacy. It is in order to respect the autonomy and equality of democratic citizens that we must allow for speech that undermines these ideals. For both thinkers, therefore, viewpoint neutrality does not entail that the state is silent on the content of speech like that of the Klan. Rather, such speech is simultaneously protected and acknowledged to be deeply at odds with the conception of legitimacy that supports the Klan’s right to speak and to associate.

This point can be made even clearer by looking at the Klan’s history. From its founding, the Klan has been devoted to eliminating equality from political society. Indeed, the Klan’s founding ambition in the nineteenth century was opposition to the Equal Protection Clause, the most clear Constitutional instantiation of the ideal of equal status at the core of both Meiklejohn’s and Rawls’ work. The Klan’s opposition to equality, and to wider values of the rule of law, are demonstrated by a cross burner quoted in Black who declared to white citizens, “When the law fails you call on us.”7 I believe, however, that there is often a conflation between the doctrine of viewpoint neutrality and the idea that the state ought to be neutral. To illustrate this point, I will digress for a moment into personal narrative. As a graduate student, I taught First Amendment law in a program for high school students. At the end of the session, the director told me that one of my students, who was white, had contributed an extremely racist “yearbook” page to the program’s culminating publication. When I confronted him about why he did this, he told me that his action was protected First Amendment speech. He might have been right as a matter of First Amendment law. The program was publicly funded and the “yearbook” arguably constituted a public forum that would trigger viewpoint neutrality. The fundamental problem, though, was that my student conflated his right to contribute a racist page with the idea that his action was justified. This was an extremely frustrating moment as a teacher, moreover, perhaps a failing of my work that summer, because the student did not realize that there was a tension between what he was allowed to do as a matter of First Amendment law and the deeper commitment of the Constitution and of a legitimate society to the ideal of equality.

This anecdote and my theoretical argument about Rawls and Mieklejohn highlight why viewpoint neutrality is distinct from state neutrality. Although hate groups such as the Klan are often protected as a matter of First Amendment law, this does not mean that the legitimate state is neutral with regard to the content of the Klan’s views. Perhaps because of its focus on coercive questions, liberal theory has often failed to find a way to allow for the state’s expression of its opposition to some political viewpoints while protecting rights. Such expression can be found when we expand the analysis of the liberal state’s response to hate groups from a singular coercive response to a multifaceted set of responses. I turn in the next section to explore how the state can offer a value-laden expression of its opposition to groups like the Klan in a manner consistent with the ideal of viewpoint neutrality. But before I do so, I want to consider an objection to my view as stated and to highlight why there has been at least some recognition in the liberal tradition of the need both to protect rights under a doctrine of viewpoint neutrality and to promote the state’s own viewpoint.

One might contend that, by allowing the expression of the state’s and citizens’ opposition to groups protected by the First Amendment, I am undermining a certain idea of pluralism at the heart of liberalism. On this approach, the Klan’s view might be thought an important one that deserves protection against all forms of citizen and state intervention. Its rally was on a private field, it could be contended, so what was said is irrelevant to the state.

There is a distinction, however, between a liberal commitment to pluralism and a commitment to reasonable pluralism.8 This existence of any arbitrary collection of views in a society does not constitute liberal pluralism. Rawls thus writes about the need to respect a variety of reasonable comprehensive views that incorporate a concern to recognize the equal status of citizens. Those views that are fundamentally incompatible with a respect for equality, I have suggested, are protected as a matter of First Amendment law. But when they are deeply at odds with the very commitment to pluralism, as are the Klan’s views, they challenge the legitimacy of the state and the possibility of a culture that reinforces that legitimacy. Such beliefs should be both legally protected and opposed with means that are consistent with citizens’ rights. The response to the paradox of rights thus lies partly in recognizing that the justification of a viewpoint-neutral understanding of free speech is itself based on a set of fundamental values. In particular, I have pointed to the democratic values of free and equal citizenship as its foundation. With this understanding in mind, we can see why it is consistent for the state to promote the democratic ideal while protecting free speech rights.

This concern both to protect rights and to promote values is at least partly present in the canonical liberal tradition. Although John Stuart Mill’s harm principle might commonly be thought to erect a “wall of separation” between the public and private realm, for instance, attention to his remarks on polygamy suggest that such a wall might be more porous than is often thought.9 For Mill, polygamy clearly deserves legal protection. But because of the threat that it poses to female equality (his feminism is particularly on display here), Mill advocates condemnation of the practice. Indeed, he suggests sending “missionaries” to combat it. I believe that this position suggests a distinction between a certain kind of neutrality regarding rights that limit coercion and state expression of condemnation of protected behavior. The distinction is not fully developed in Mill, and in particular he sometimes seems to be merely moralizing when he suggests a duty to combat behavior protected by rights. Attention to his conception of citizenship, however, and in particular to his feminism, makes it plausible to think he has something like framing government responses in mind when he condemns practices protected by rights.

Mill’s simultaneous defense of individual rights against intervention and duties of citizen intervention is most evident in his defense of free speech. Indeed, Mill’s famous argument that free speech will allow “truth” to win out rests on the idea that citizens have duties to argue against protected speech that is wrong. In his terms, the defenders of untruth should not be coerced, but should be “remonstrated” with. Mill warns that because of the inherent fallibility of both the state and citizens, attempts by either coercively to limit false arguments in the public sphere will tend to stymie true arguments as well. It is preferable, he argues, to allow even false arguments to be voiced so that the process of public discourse can clarify the truth by illuminating the veracity of true arguments and confirming for all the falsehood of fallacious ones. But the argument here can only work with the understanding that there is a robust duty for citizens to engage in a public discourse in which citizens argue against injustice.

The idea of political duties to respond to behavior that is protected from coercion is also clear, as suggested above, in Mill’s account of polygamy. Late in Chapter Four of “On Liberty,” Mill suggests that the Mormon institution of polygamy is protected from coercion as a matter of right because it is “as much voluntary on the part of the women concerned in it, and who may be deemed the sufferers by it, as is the case with any other form of the marriage institution.”10 Yet Mill’s feminism leads him, at the same time, to suggest an obligation for citizens to oppose the institution. Mill goes so far as to claim that those opposed to polygamy might go about opposing polygamy through missionary work: “Let them send missionaries, if they please, to preach against it; and let them, by any fair means (of which silencing the teachers is not one), oppose the progress of similar doctrines among their own people.”11

For Mill, citizens are permitted to oppose behavior protected from coercion and at times have duties to do so. But one might argue that such duties are entirely consistent with the reading of Mill as a defender of the public/private distinction and the spatial metaphor. Namely, it could be contended that Mill does not view these duties as political obligations of citizens but as moral duties of persons as such. If the duties are moral but not political, the spatial metaphor could be retained because a distinction could be made between political rights, which stem from the harm principle, and private duties, which stem from persons’ private conceptions of the good.

Such a reading, however, is hard to square with Mill’s text and in particular his remarks on polygamy. His reasons here do seem to be explicitly political. He remarks:

No one has a deeper disapprobation than I have of this Mormon institution; both for other reasons, and because, far from being in any way countenanced by the principle of liberty, it is a direct infraction of that principle, being a mere riveting of the chains of one half of the community, and an emancipation of the other from reciprocity of obligation towards them.12


Mill’s conception of liberty itself seems to be the common root of his accounts of both citizens’ rights against coercion and their duties. Indeed, Mill’s feminism also leads here to a political concern to ensure that women’s status as equal citizens is not undermined. On the one hand, Mill recognizes that, as a coercive matter, the harm principle prevents the state from banning polygamy. But framed as an issue about political duty, Mill suggests that citizens must oppose the practice. I read both concerns as based on Mill’s belief that liberty and female domestic subordination are incompatible.

Far, then, from merely cordoning off behavior protected from coercive state intervention as part of a private space, Mill is a clear exemplar of a theorist of framing. He maintains that a practice or a belief framed as a matter of rights can be protected against political or social coercion, yet, framed as a matter of duty, this same practice can be viewed as publicly-relevant. Rights thus do not define a rigid private space or sphere, but, for Mill, merely limit certain kinds of state action.

In short, Mill clarifies why framing helps us to see how an action protected from coercion can remain politically-relevant. He does so by emphasizing the importance of citizens’ duty to oppose practices that undermine basic political values, while indicating how this duty is compatible with the harm principle. Yet we must avoid Mill’s lack of clarity about precisely what constitutes a political duty of citizenship and his failure at times to avoid coercive means of carrying out that duty. I believe that these problems can be remedied in two ways.

First, the ideal of citizens’ status as equals is a limited one that does not encompass the full range of individuals’ beliefs. As I have suggested, the argument should be for including a belief in equality within one’s overall scheme of belief. To the extent that one’s beliefs are incompatible with equality, there is a need for transformation. Many beliefs, however, will simply be irrelevant to or otherwise compatible with a belief in equality. There is thus an important distinction between politically-irrelevant actions and beliefs protected by rights and those that are politically-relevant. In a variety of instances, we have rights to do things that are wrong and also politically-irrelevant. I act wrongly in a moral sense if I break up with my girlfriend by email rather than in person, for instance, but this is irrelevant to my or her status as a citizen. I have a right to do wrong here and there is nothing from the point of view of the citizen or the state to say about it. In this sense, my immoral behavior is private and rightly immune both from coercion and public justification. In contrast, practices that undermine citizens’ sense of themselves as equals are politically-relevant. This is what led Mill to think that citizens should refrain from coercing polygamists although they have a duty to oppose them. It is thus necessary to develop a response from the point of view of citizens and the state that captures the violation in terms of political morality focused on harms to citizenship, distinct from any general moral violation.

Second, the ideal of free and equal citizenship suggests a limit on the method of persuasion that is appropriate for citizens in carrying out their duty. We would not want citizens or the state to employ a method of persuasion that undermined the ideals of free and equal citizenship in the attempt to promote the value of equality. Although I believe that it is necessary for schools to instill in students respect for citizens’ status as equals, for instance, they should not do so in a way that undermines students’ capacity to reason and to come to their own opinions. Part of this entails the seeming paradox of allowing dissent while encouraging citizens to reason in a way that regards each other as free and equal. It also requires that the means of promoting public values rely on reasoning instead of undermining it. Mill himself seemed most sensitive to this concern in his warnings about social coercion. I want to heed Mill’s warning by distinguishing between reasoned opposition to hateful viewpoints and the mere use of social ostracism or other techniques that do not convey reasons for disapproval. As should be clear from the above, I approve of the former, while rejecting the latter. I turn now to elaborating how the expression of the fundamental values associated with political legitimacy can be consistent with a respect for rights.
III. Citizens’ Roles within Civil Society in Combating Hate

Consider, as a first illustration of the distinctly political role of citizens in effecting transformation within civil society, a supposed historical attempt by the Anti-Defamation League.13 In the 1930s, the League supposedly sponsored a campaign of “frown power” in which citizens were encouraged to frown collectively when they overheard racist language. The campaign was not intended to transform law. The league did not, for instance, advocate legal limits on such speech. Instead, the campaign was meant to be a political action by citizens to stimulate individuals’ consciousness of how their political commitments should affect their everyday interaction. Also important to understanding the campaign’s significance is the fact that it was not framed in terms of any type of moral duty. Rather, the act of frowning was meant to highlight the failure to fulfill a basic commitment to respect others as equal citizens, a respect sorely lacking in much of America before the civil rights era.

I use this example only to help generate intuitions about our roles as citizens within the culture apart from our role in enacting law, and I do not want to overemphasize its centrality as a paradigm of citizen opposition to hateful viewpoints. For one thing, there is doubt over whether the campaign was effective or indeed about whether it existed in any significant way. More importantly, the campaign did not emphasize the necessity of bringing reasons to bear on social change. A more salient example can be found in the impact of the civil rights movement and the bravery of the Freedom Riders on daily cultural interaction, apart from issues of de jure segregation. The victory of the civil rights movement was not simply getting restaurants and hotels regulated as “public accommodations” under threat of coercion. Its impact was also in creating an awareness that everyday interactions, in what were thought to be private spaces protected by rights of association and expression, were not immune from considerations of equal citizenship. The Freedom Riders, who sat in at lunch counters and endured the humiliation of white patrons, helped publicize the extent to which the principles enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause were absent in the culture. These spaces had been regarded as “private” until the civil rights era and were transformed largely by citizen movements.

In contemporary constitutional law, there is a distinction between “public accommodations” such as hotels and lunch counters, which are regulated by civil rights law, and private clubs, which are protected by free association. But even if we recognize as a matter of law that free association rights limit the interference of coercive anti-discrimination law into these organizations, we can recognize that such clubs are not immune from the need for political justification. Because racial exclusivity plays a part in excluding some citizens from social networks and perpetuates a general culture of outsiders and insiders, citizens have a role, apart from state action, in seeking to transform such clubs even if they do not have coercive law at their disposal. Such duties play out in the obligation of members of such clubs to resist racial or gender discrimination in club polices or to refuse to join or remain members.14 Although free association is typically invoked to respond to the types of arguments I have made, such claims are inappropriate responses to my contentions about citizens’ duties.

Examining issues of public relevance through the frame of citizen duty rather than rights also helps to unpack recent controversies about the membership of two public officials in exclusive private organizations. During his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Samuel Alito was criticized for his membership in a Princeton University alumni group that not only was gender and racially exclusive in membership, but also had as its mission the opposition of diversity initiatives that sought to bring more blacks and women to Princeton University, an institution with a history of excluding both groups.15 Similarly, Senator Ted Kennedy was attacked by his core constituency around the same time for his membership in a private club that excluded women. One argument for the public relevance of such cases invokes the obligations incurred by these two persons as a result of their acceptance of their public roles. Ted Kennedy has viewed civil rights as a central commitment throughout his career, moreover, so his membership also raised concerns about hypocrisy.16 But on my account, these cases also highlight, on a public stage, the way in which ordinary citizens, who all should be committed to the ideal of equal citizenship, can violate their duties in “private” life. These memberships betray public values of citizenship, which are incumbent on all, not just those who hold public office. No one in this debate disputed the right of both men to join such clubs as a matter of law; rather, the issue was a moral one about whether their decisions to join these clubs violated basic public duties. The values of inclusion and equality of citizens at play here are not limited to political representatives, but are the core values that all citizens rightly share. Opposition to these memberships suggests a broader commitment, I think, to opposing exclusive membership even when it is justifiably protected against coercion under the First Amendment.

In his work on privacy, Thomas Nagel suggests a counterargument to my case for citizen duties to promote equality. He offers a defense of preserving the spatial metaphor that suggests “private space” should be immune from politics both as a matter of liberal rights and liberal culture. Nagel recognizes that it is not sufficient to invoke rights to show a particular behavior is private and publicly irrelevant. Rather, he realizes the need for a defense of a cultural norm of privacy enforced as a matter of citizen duty distinct from any role the state has in coercing. For Nagel, therefore, both frames of pubic coercion and private duty require immunities from the concerns of political justification.

In Nagel’s terms, citizens are obligated to promote a culture of “reticence” that shields both public officials’ and private citizens’ private lives. Reticence, Nagel argues, serves as a cultural privacy protection that buffers the guarantees of privacy also provided by liberal rights. In turn, protections both from state coercion and in the cultural ethos, he argues, ensure that individuals will have a “space” to repair to, away from the public gaze, in which to formulate their conceptions of the good. In such space, citizens are rightly free to have a variety of thoughts and fantasies, as well as the capacity to sort out which of these to act on and which not to. He suggests sexual fantasies about domination, for instance, might merely be a psychic working out of a variety of issues that citizens can then express publicly in a variety of ways. Similarly, we might extend the argument to understand racist jokes and comments as mere venting or experimentation that do not have further implications in the workplace.

On Nagel’s view, both the public examination of Clarence Thomas’ work behavior and the public focus on President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky violated the duty of reticence because they invaded spaces of private thought and behavior, denying both persons the cultural reticence to which they are entitled. Similarly, Nagel thinks that the public examination of personal racist beliefs has violated the rights of those with racist views to “feel comfortable” in the public world. According to Nagel, the value of reticence is related to

intimacy, which creates personal relations protected from the general gaze, permitting us to lose our inhibitions and expose ourselves to one another. But we do not necessarily share all our sexual fantasies with our sexual partners or all our opinions of their actions with our closest friends. All interpersonal contact goes through the visible surface, even if it penetrates fairly deep, and managing what appears on the surface -- both positively and negatively -- is the constant work of human life.17
To reinforce the value of reticence, Nagel posits a hypothetical work cocktail party at which a woman who is being considered for an academic position encounters the male chair of her prospective department. If he is to respect the woman’s privacy, Nagel argues, the man has an obligation not to voice his deep physical attraction to the woman but instead to stick to more appropriate topics of conversation. Nagel’s point here is that some topics of conversation raised in certain circumstances intrude upon the privacy rights of those present, in a cultural although not coercive sense, because they fail to acknowledge the value of reticence and therefore violate the space of intimacy.

Nagel’s defense of privacy as a cultural value beyond privacy rights, however, is mistaken about what liberal values require of us. When considering rights, there is good reason for liberal theory to resist regulation of thoughts and expressions of racism and misogyny. In a free society, citizens must be allowed to hear and make arguments that stray from even the most basic ideas of political legitimacy. But that fundamental liberal commitment should not be taken to oppose the role of citizens in pointing out, even in everyday behavior, how and when expressions at odds with the ideal of free and equal citizenship fall short of the most basic beliefs incumbent on citizens in a legitimate society. In particular, I find puzzling Nagel’s contention that reticence demands that we treat racists in a way that makes them comfortable in public. What defines racists is precisely their expression of opposition to liberal norms of reticence and equality. They do not merely have the occasional racist thought or reaction. Rather, they defend and promote such beliefs in the culture. Such thoughts should not be “comfortable” within liberal culture. Similarly, when discussing issues of gender, Nagel fails to distinguish between reticence in the face of publicly-irrelevant behavior and publicly-relevant behavior. Clarence Thomas, in particular, was accused of violating the most basic norms of equal respect when he made unwanted sexual advances to Anita Hill in the workplace. If true, these are matters that directly impact public values of equality. Our right to be free from harassment is no more private when it happens in the workplace than it would be on the street. Ensuring workplaces where women are regarded as equals is central to political legitimacy, moreover, making the failure to ensure this a public issue. Disempowerment for women in the work world would render them financially disabled, which, in a market economy, could not fail to hurt their standing as equal citizens.

Ultimately, a commitment to political equality must rest on a set of beliefs within the culture. If such a commitment is necessary for political legitimacy, it follows that it should be recognized and promoted by citizens, regardless of the environment in which they find themselves. It is central to the liberal commitment to free speech and conscience that such beliefs should not be coercively enforced. But as a matter of “ethos,” a commitment to equal citizenship is not inconsistent with liberalism. Although discussion of the liberal ethos has moved us far from value or viewpoint neutrality, it does not collapse into the broader terrain of moral philosophy proper. Promotion of the values of citizenship is certainly a moral view, but it remains within a Rawlsian ideal of political morality in which comprehensive conceptions are bracketed in favor of a focus on values that define our shared status as citizens. My claim has not been about the promotion of values central to the good life or to realization of any particular metaphysical conception. Rather, I have suggested how the promotion of the more minimal values of citizenship and political legitimacy is consistent with a respect for rights.

Having elaborated on citizens’ obligations to defend public values and on the consistency of these obligations with basic rights, I turn now to the state’s non-coercive role in intervening in “private” life. I suggest why framing the question of the state’s intervention into the “private” realms of the family and civil society with reference to its non-coercive functions demonstrates how the state can promote citizenship without violating legitimate rights.


IV. The State’s Role as a Promoter of Public Values in Private Life

So far, I have used the idea of framing to distinguish between protections of private life from state action and citizens’ roles in promoting public values within the spheres thought to be cordoned off by such protections. In addition to framing issues of privacy and publicity by reference to citizens’ duties, in this section I stress the importance of reframing issues of public relevance in terms of the multiple non-coercive roles of the state. Although the state should often protect the rights of groups in civil society, for instance, it also should try to promote public values within those groups through its expressive capacities. Similar to questions of citizens’ duties, the issue of how the state should respond to activities within civil society often depends on how we frame the state intervention at issue.

My term “non-coercive” has the potential to mislead, so I will clarify the specific sense in which I mean it. I do not claim that the state’s roles as educator, speaker, and spender have no coercive aspects. As educator, the state forces students to attend school; as speaker, the state collects tax money for public monuments; and as spender, the state certainly applies pressure that is thought by some to amount to coercion. When I use “coercive,” however, I mean that the state, through direct threat, forces citizens to accept a particular belief. In its roles as educator, speaker, and spender, the state acts coercively, but it does not do so in this particular objectionable way. Rather, it uses the means at its disposal, such as its spending power, to try to persuade, but it does not do so through threat of forceful sanction. My contention is that there is a moral distinction between state promotion of public values in these capacities and the kind of forceful imposition through criminal law of values at odds with hateful viewpoints that I suggested was rightly disallowed by the doctrine of viewpoint neutrality.

The need for attention to the multiple coercive and non-coercive roles of the state is particularly important to issues of hate speech. Such speech is rightly protected in liberal societies from state punishment or other forms of state coercion. Like Mill and more contemporary defenders of free political speech, I think it essential in a liberal society to allow citizens to hear all opinions and to make up their own minds about politics without state intervention. Yet, at the same time, hateful groups express ideologies at odds with the very liberal ideals that give rise to the rights that protect them. I argue that, in addition to the ideal citizen’s response to such speech, the state, too, can legitimately make a non-coercive response to groups that threaten liberal values.

In responding to hate speech, the state must find a way simultaneously to defend society’s core values—values at odds with hate groups—and, qua coercer, to protect the right to speak out against these same values. It therefore must be careful not to allow its protection of hate groups, and the doctrine of value neutrality used to protect them, to be confused with approval of such groups. On the contrary, the state must develop the means both to use the doctrine of viewpoint neutrality and, in its expressive capacity, to act in a non-neutral way in defense of liberal values. It rightly does so in its expressive functions as speaker, educator, and spender. In analyzing the state in these capacities, the issue is not what the state allows others to say, but what it rightfully says when it expresses itself. Namely, it is central to the state’s legitimacy that it express a concern to respect and promote the values integral to a legitimate society, including the values of free and equal citizenship. As a matter of First Amendment law, it is clear that, in these capacities, the state can take a political viewpoint.18 But I want to go beyond what is legally permissible for the state to do in these capacities and discern its more particular obligations to express the core values of political legitimacy.

In elaborating on the idea of the state qua expresser and promoter of values rather than coercer, it is helpful to draw on the work of the critical race theorist Charles Lawrence, which in turn draws on the work of Richard Delgado. As Lawrence sees it, the state is always acting in its expressive capacities because all state action, including the coercive, is backed by reasons and value judgments. Lawrence, for instance, sees the decision to desegregate lunch counters and the refusal to allow signs that bar entry to African Americans as themselves expressions of the state’s support for the values of equal citizenship19 Lawrence uses this approach to argue that the state should limit hate speech and hate groups through criminal law. He argues, as I have, that these groups directly threaten the basic values of a free society, and that the state therefore must be clear in its condemnation of these groups. It rightly expresses this condemnation, he argues, through the criminal law.

The problem with Lawrence’s account, however, is that it fails to recognize the distinction between the types of value being expressed when the state acts in its expressive capacities and the type of value being expressed by its failure to limit the expression of citizens and groups within society. When the state bans murder in criminal law, for instance, it is clearly expressing the idea that murder is at odds with the rules of a legitimate society. Anti-discrimination law is also of this variety; it expresses disapproval for treatment of citizens which is at odds with the commitment to equality. But not all decisions about coercion are like these. When the state protects the Klan’s rights to association and speech, it is not expressing support for the Klan’s values, nor is it neutral about these ideas. Rather, it protects this expression for reasons related to respect for liberal principles of freedom. Lawrence’s critique, however, is helpful in forcing liberal theory to clarify its reasons for refusing to regulate illiberal expression. When the state refrains from regulating illiberal viewpoints, it is essential that it also use its expressive capacities to clarify that it is not expressing support for the viewpoints themselves but rather for the right to free expression. In other words, the state should condemn the same hate groups it protects through rights.

The contemporary state can “speak” in favor of its own values and against hate groups protected by rights in a variety of ways, ranging from the direct statements of politicians to monuments and public holidays. Indeed, the state has often done so; Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month, for instance, are examples of official endorsement of the civil rights movement’s struggle for equality. In celebrations and commemorations of these days, speakers who represent us all do not shy away from political viewpoints. Rather, they articulate a defense of the ideal of equal status and celebrate those citizens who promoted it. Far from being viewpoint-neutral about Southern segregation or groups like the Klan, the state promotes a particular viewpoint in defense of equal protection and against those who seek to defeat it. Of course, citizens have the right to dissent from such expression. But here the state and its citizens should stand together in expressing disapproval of those who directly lament the loss of segregation in our society or who more subtly lament the end of a “federalism” that would protect segregation through states’ rights.

Another way to understand and frame state expression in defense of these values is through state action as educator. When curricula require that the history of civil rights and the struggle against groups like the Klan is taught in schools, for instance, these matters are not taught in a viewpoint-neutral way. Rather, the movement and its victories are rightly taught as part of the American desire to live up to our proclaimed values of equality. The government’s unabashed hope in structuring curricula to include Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month is that, regardless of what they are taught at home, students will internalize and share a commitment to promoting the value of equal status.

Some might object here that, because children are forced to attend school, the state capacity as educator is not merely expressive. Here, it is essential to pay attention to the methodology used in expressing the state’s values. Civic education must not undermine the values of a legitimate society. Teachers, for instance, should be careful not simply to silence dissenting students, even in cases, such as civil rights and segregation, which are easy cases from the standpoint of political morality. Teaching should resemble the state’s expressions as speaker by instilling respect for basic liberal values through reasoning rather than coercion. Teachers should not force a belief on children, just as the state should not force a belief on its citizens. Indeed, mere requirements of pledging or recitation fail to capture respect for each individual as free and equal. More appropriate curricula would encourage students to reflect on these matters and to debate hard cases. Such encouragement, though, is not viewpoint- or value-neutral. In its methods, the state should attempt to instill a respect for reasoned discourse as well as recognition that, fundamentally, the values of free and equal citizenship underpin such respect. Similarly, teachers should not hesitate to frame issues to get their students to see the moral imperative of a state based not on just any values, but on those of free and equal citizenship.

The city-state of Singapore is a useful example of a polity that does not respect its citizens’ free and equal status when it addresses them. In many areas, it extends a heavy coercive and non-coercive hand in transforming private life. Yet, even its non-coercive persuasion provides a model of talking down to citizens. It often disregards citizens’ rights to freedom of conscience. It also often attempts to intervene in citizens’ lives in ways that undermine their status as equals. It makes pronouncements in newspapers, for instance, that dictate how often citizens should copulate for productive purposes. Finally, it also does so in a way that is pedantic and paternalistic instead of reasoned, undermining citizens’ status as autonomous reasoners. Daniel Bell outlines a few examples of this tendency, such as an “annual Courtesy Campaign to promote punctuality at weddings and to warn people not to overstuff their plates at buffet tables.”20

The state also acts in its expressive capacity in its role of spender. Here, its power in contemporary society is tremendous. If we combine what the state spends directly on various programs, the money it grants to private organizations, and the money it uses to subsidize all non-profit groups in the form of tax exemptions, government expenditure is a significant portion of the gross domestic product.21 In this capacity, the state has a variety of goals. These goals, however, should be consistent with the core political value of equal status. The state should ensure that its expenditures are not used to support groups that undermine this ideal.

Two controversies illustrate this point. In 1970, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) decided that it would no longer consider as “charities” groups that pursued active discrimination against blacks.22 Following this policy, Bob Jones University was denied continued tax exempt status. The IRS based its decision on the fact that the university prohibited black unmarried males on campus and that it restricted interracial dating amongst its students. The IRS argued that its interpretation of “charity” should cohere with basic Constitutional values, particularly with the Equal Protection Clause’s recognition that race-based distinctions without compelling interest violate the ideal of equal status. Importantly, the issue is not one of coercion. Even if we accept that Bob Jones University should be allowed to express its racist views through its campus policy as a privacy matter, the IRS argued that, should it choose to do so, the government should not subsidize it in the form of tax exemptions. Understood from the frame of coercion, therefore, such behavior is protected and private. But from the frame of the state as speaker and spender, it is rightly condemned. This case illustrates, I think, that there should be at least a minimal standard stating that, in its capacity as spender, the state should not subsidize groups that undermine its basic values.

A more recent and arguably harder case concerns the City of Boston’s decision to discontinue licensing the Catholic Charities adoption service if they refuse to allow adoption by gay potential parents. It is important to clarify here two reasons why the controversy implicates the state as spender. First, the licenses of charities in Massachusetts are linked to recognition of their non-profit status. Second, the licenses entitle charities to state subsidies when they place children in adoptive homes. There is great controversy about the rights of gay citizens and the potential analogy here to issues of race discrimination. I have argued previously that both issues implicate basic values of equal status.23 While there is not room to argue for this point here, it is important to clarify that Boston’s decision can be defended as expressive state action, even while we recognize that there should be limitations on the state as a coercive agent. We might argue, for instance, that Boston was correct to limit funding for this agency but that the licensing issue is separate. Catholic Charities, under some state schemes, might be allowed to offer a service to people who want their children not to go to a gay couple, without this service receiving a state subsidy. Viewed as a matter of coercion, this decision might be criticized as violating expressive rights. But from the frame of the state as spender, the state can be regarded as acting legitimately by restricting funds to an organization that challenges the ideal of the equal status of all citizens, including gay adoptive parents.

One potential counter-argument to the idea that the state should directly defend its basic values qua speaker, educator, and spender comes from the concern that when it tries to express its views, it might do so badly. During the first Bush administration, for instance, doctors who received federal funds were banned from telling patients about their rights to an abortion. Viewing the rule as a coercive restriction, abortion and free-speech-rights plaintiffs brought a suit to challenge what became known as “the gag rule.” The Court, however, claimed that the state was acting here as a spender and a speaker and thus violated no rights. Framed this way, the case does not involve a privacy violation. Defenders of abortion rights, however, would argue that the decision was mistaken because, although it concerned the state as speaker, it denied women rights of information essential to the right to an abortion itself.

I think that it is a mistake to see examples such as these as evidence against the idea that the state should use its expressive capacities in defense of the values central to political legitimacy. The gag rule case is an instance of the state expressing itself as spender, but here the state expresses itself in a way inconsistent with the most basic values of a legitimate society. Just because the state acts in its capacity as speaker or spender rather than as coercer does not mean that it does so in the right way. The problem with the gag rule is that it sought to deny information to citizens, not only about their medical options, but about their legal rights. In a democracy, hindering access to information about basic rights keeps citizens both from being treated as equals and from being treated as autonomous individuals capable of making their own decisions. Withholding such information suggests that citizens are not capable, as those in the “know” are, of making decisions about what to do with their rights. Although I think the frame in the gag rule case is rightly one of the state in its expressive capacities, therefore, the position expressed is at odds with the core values of a liberal democracy. The commitment I have suggested throughout this essay is not a relativist one that allows the state to promote values of whatever kind. Just as the state would violate its mandate as a speaker if it were to preach inequality, so too, by denying access to information in the gag rule case, the state failed to promote the right values. The gag rule case thus demonstrates that rights are not the only limits on government action. The requirements of content and method that I have suggested also are normative guidelines for what the state should say in its expressive capacities.


V. Conclusion

I have proposed the idea of framing government action in various ways as an alternative to the spatial metaphor for understanding the public-private distinction. Although that metaphor suggests that civil society groups should be considered private entities when protected by rights, on my approach their beliefs and practices can still remain publicly-relevant. Framing highlights that although an individual might have rights that protect practices and beliefs at odds with our public commitment to equal status, these rights do not confer immunity from justification. Framed from the perspective of citizens as such or from that of the state in its expressive capacities, “private” life might be publicly-relevant. Hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, are both protected from coercion by rights to freedom of expression and rightly condemned by citizens as members of civil society. The state in its capacities as speaker, educator, and spender, moreover, rightly shows solidarity with these citizens by condemning hate groups directly.



Interpreters of First Amendment “viewpoint neutrality,” which suggests robust protection for all political speech, including the ideological expression of hate groups, should be careful not to conflate this doctrine with one of state neutrality. Namely, the protection of civil society groups’ rights to free speech and free association does not suggest that the values of citizenship or of the state are themselves neutral, nor does it cordon off a space of privacy for civil society organizations free from the scrutiny of politics. Hate groups are entitled to their rights, but citizens and the state in its non-coercive capacities still rightfully condemn such groups. Framing clarifies why such policies correctly strike a balance between protecting liberty and promoting the values of free and equal citizenship.

1 Feminist critics of liberalism such as Wendy Brown and liberal feminists have argued that in many of its common forms liberalism fails to recognize deep inequality within the family because the family is regarded as private. See in particular Brown, “Rights and Losses,” in States of Injury (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 95-135

2 Michael Sandel suggests that liberalism’s protection of the rights of civil society groups and its neutrality about the values present in civil society have rendered it ineffective in fostering a culture of equality. See Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1996). See also Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: Free Press, 1993.

3 Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003).

4 Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire 315 U.S. 568 (1942).

5 Alexander Mieklejohn, Free Speech and Its Relation to Self-Government (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948).

6 John Rawls, Political Liberalism, expanded edition (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

7 Virginia v. Black.

8 For an in depth discussion of this distinction see my “The Politics of the Personal: A Liberal Approach, The American Political Science Review, February 2007..

9 John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, eds. Bromowich and Kateb (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 154.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 There is disagreement about the success and even the existence of this campaign. Personal mail exchange with Professor Steven Levitt, University of Chicago, 3/1/06.

14 Nancy Rosenblum, and in particular her book Membership and Morals, is widely regarded as a preeminent defense of free association rights for clubs that discriminate. She suggests that the incongruity between the club's private inegalatarian values and the public commitment of citizens to equality is defensible because these clubs present utilitarian benefits to society as a whole. They channel what might be the political violence of extremists, for example, into social organizations where they can be better controlled. They provide a psychological outlet, moreover, for inegalitarian beliefs and so protect the public realm from such beliefs. I believe, however, that these arguments go to matters of coercion. They do not suggest whether, qua citizens, we should oppose such groups in our non-coercive capacities.

15 See Richard W. Stevenson and Neil A. Lewis, “Democrats Take Aggressive Tack; Alito is Unfazed,” New York Times, January 12, 2006, pg.1, and David A. Kirkpatrick, “From Alito's Past, a Window On Conservatives at Princeton,” New York Times, November 27, 2005, pg.1.

16 See Charles Babington, “Sen. Kennedy Cuts Ties to Male-Only Harvard Club,” Washington Post, January 19, 2006, pg. A07.

17 Thomas Nagel, “Concealment and Exposure,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 27, no 1 (Winter 1998), 4.

18 This principle was first announced in Columbia Broadcasting System vs. Democratic National Committee 412 U.S. 94 (1973).

19 Charles Lawrence, “If He Hollers Let Him Go: Racist Speech on Campus,” in Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, And The First Amendment, ed. Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, Charles R. Lawrence, III, Mari J Matsuda, Richard Delgado (New York: Westview Press, 1993), 53-88.


20 See Daniel A. Bell, “A Communitarian Critique of Authoritarianism: The Case of Singapore,” Political Theory 25, no. 1 (Feb 1997), 11.

21 The Bureau of Economic Analysis of the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in the fourth quarter of 2007 to be $14,080.8 billion and the portion of GDP contributed by “Government consumption expenditures and gross investment” to be $2,770.6 billion. Government spending thus accounts for 19.68% of U.S. GDP. See U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, “National Income and Product Accounts Table: Table 1.1.5. Gross Domestic Product,” http://www.bea.gov/national/nipaweb/TableView.asp?SelectedTable=5&FirstYear=2006&LastYear=2007&Freq=Qtr, accessed 2/3/2008.


22 See Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983).

23 See chapter 4 of my Democratic Rights.





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