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AN column: “Free Speech” in Times of Conflict by Lise M. Dobrin and Eve Danziger

Lessons from Charlottesville

Since the violent events that took place in Charlottesville, VA, this past August, when a white supremacist rally led to the killing of a peaceful counter-protester, there has been a lot of reflection in the media and among legal scholars on the problem of free speechDoes the right to speak still call for protection when people are not only shouting incendiary racist slogans, but brandishing weapons as they do so? Where is the line between speaking one’s mind and forms of expression that impinge on the freedom of others?

Trying to make sense of a shrouded Confederate statue in Charlottesville. Lise Dobrin.

As linguistic anthropologists who call Charlottesville home, we find such questions very compelling. Interestingly, we have also begun detecting in mainstream discourse a new openness to ideas about the nature of language that are basic to our field. Many thoughtful commentators on the state of American political culture seem ready to move beyond the speaker-centric view of speech as something individuals produce, and think about the wider setting that makes communication—including reception and interpretation—possible within a free society.

Linguistic anthropologists understand that speech is multidimensional, rather than training their attention exclusively on the referential value of what is said. The location in which an act of speaking takes place affects its interpretation, as does who speaks, when they speak, and what preceded and followed. Note that we don’t say “what talk preceded and followed” since the talk itself (what most people could imagine transcribing) is only one part of an interconnected complex of signs, visual ones included.

Freedom of speech is about so much more than the rights of individuals to speak, publish, broadcast, express, petition, and so on.

There is also the participation frame: it matters who speech is addressed to, who else is listening in, and what all these interpreters understand it to mean. Note that the hearer has an important role to play in all of this. Meaning is made in the act of interpretation, and yet across American society, common-sense ideas about the communicative process focus inordinately—and often deceptively—on speakers, laying blame for communicative problems on their clarity (“I can’t understand my TA through that thick accent”) or intentions (“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I was only kidding!”). American linguistic culture makes the role of the interpreter invisible, or at best layered on as a separate, secondary matter.

The importance of understanding freedom of speech within its fuller communicative context was brought home to us recently after reading a thought-provoking article written nearly thirty years ago by Roy Harris, a critic of “segregational” approaches to linguistics that treat language apart from social life as its own separate realm. Harris revisits a very strange contention in Rousseau’s Essay on the Origin of Languages, namely that some languages are more “favourable to liberty” than others because they are highly audible: they are so “sonorous, prosodic, harmonious” that it’s easy to hear them a great distance away. Rousseau may have been speaking from a bad place in the history of phonetics, but he seems also to have been speaking metaphorically about the conditions that make political communication possible. What Harris takes from Rousseau is that “the whole question of liberty and language is bound up with the extent to which a linguistic community is also a communicating society” (Harris 1990).  In other words, freedom of speech is about so much more than the rights of individuals to speak, publish, broadcast, express, petition, and so on; it is about a societal configuration in which communication is facilitated because people are also able and willing to listen: “freedom of speech… is a mockery unless what is said can be heard” (Harris 1990).

Much has been made recently about the “echo chamber” effect in contemporary media, and reports appear almost daily on the mechanisms that contribute to it: the dismissal of politically unfavorable messages as “fake” and so unworthy of consideration, the operation of homophily (attraction to similarity) within social networksthe micro-targeting of voters, and elected officials blocking social media messages from constituents whose perspectives they don’t want to hear. Earlier this year, Virginia Congressman Tom Garrett refused to hold a town hall meeting in Charlottesville, and when he later did hold one he arranged for it to take place in an unnecessarily small venue with tickets issued by lottery, effectively insulating him from his most dissatisfied constituents. In condemning this action, commentators lamented that their elected representative was refusing to hear them. The echo chamber constitutes a threat to liberty because it places limits on the consideration of speech by others, particularly those with contradicting opinions.

An expanded conception of speech is also implicit in moves by the American Civil Liberties Union and municipalities like Boston that have, since Charlottesville, dissociated the protection of speech from individuals who bear arms. How easy is it to listen to someone carrying a gun? If even the police are intimidated by the extent of the armament speakers are carrying, as they were when the white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville, what then of fellow civilians? An expanded view of speech is also going to be necessary in order to push back against Second Amendment proponents claiming to be aggrieved if their weapons are disallowed at rallies because, they argue, carrying them constitutes a form of expression. Such a claim may trivially acknowledge that signs can be multimodal, but it disregards the enormous relevance of interpretation, drawing us back to the common-sense but overly narrow conception of speech as something that individual speakers produce.

Because legal categories tend to reflect common-sense cultural ones, we can only hope that this more expansive, more realistic, conception of speech will take further hold in public discourse. Only then can we expect legal questions about freedom of speech to move beyond distracting reductionist ones like “Is carrying a self-loading rifle a form of expression?” and instead help us focus on the conditions that enable communication within a free society, which call for an ability to hear, consider, and respond, as well as an ability to speak.

Lise M. Dobrin is the director of the Linguistics Program at the University of Virginia.

Eve Danziger is the chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Virginia.

Please send your comments, contributions, news, and announcements to SLA contributing editors Anna Babel( or Ilana Gershon (

Cite as:  Dobrin, Lise M., and Eve Danziger. 2017. “‘Free Speech’ in Times of Conflict.” Anthropology News website, December 6, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.710