Rules for the State that Never Shuts Up

Every Friday in September and October, public schools officials across the United States attempt to persuade numerous impressionable minds of the following proposition: “You should come out for the big game and support our team.”  Shortly after that announcement is made on the PA system, students attend a math class in which another public school official attempts to persuade them that, to quote Wikipeida, “the area of the square whose side is the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the areas of the squares whose sides are the two legs (the two sides that meet at a right angle).”  Students then off to English class, where another public official attempts to persuade them that cultured citizens appreciated Victorian poetry.

On a superficial reading, Corey Brettschneider believes all these official efforts at persuasion violate fundamental liberal norms.  His When the State Speaks, What Should it Say vigorously argues that liberal states attempt to persuade citizens only of certain fundamental liberal truths.  On all other matters, Brettschneider maintains, democratic persuasion is inappropriate.  He writes, “The legitimate state should seek to change discriminatory views to the extent that they challenge the democratic value that all persons should be regarded as free and equal.  However, to avoid having the state impose a ‘comprehensive doctrine,’ I argue that persuasive attempts at transformation should only be aimed at those beliefs that are openly hostile to or implausibly consistent with the idea of public equality.”

This seems an implausible theory of government speech, particularly if you think public schools across theory do not routinely violate liberal norms every ten seconds or so.  Perhaps with some strain, we might decide that liberal theory is committed to all scientific truths, since liberalism may have commitments to basic rationality.  I am less convinced that liberalism requires public officials persuade people that they really ought to read Victorian poetry (as opposed to, say, histories of Sweden).  Nothing in liberal theory depends on whether the good and faithful students of Mepham High School are persuaded to support their team in the big game against Calhoun.

The reason I suspect When the State Speaks makes a broad claim that seems to have such obvious counterexamples is that Brettschneider confuses two distinct problems.  The book jacket asks, “How should a liberal democracy respond to hate groups that oppose the ideal of free and equal citizenship?  To this question, Brettschneider gives an interesting, important, largely correct, and, most important, very plausible, answer.  The state should grant all persons the right to advocate non-liberal beliefs about public equality, but liberal states should also engage in aggressive attempts to persuade citizens that liberal egalitarian values are sound.  There are, of course, always details that one might criticize as others in this symposium have done and will do, but I suspect few will dispute the basic principle that liberal states ought to use the bully pulpit and the state treasury to promote the cause of liberalism.  Brettschneider in the book, unfortunately, maintains that his providing standards that govern a far broader concern that how a liberal state should respond to hate groups and hate speech.  The introduction promises “a guide to identify when state speech is appropriate, to elaborate its content, and to define its proper limits.”  If we are talking about “state speech” in general, then we need to talk about state efforts to persuade people to support the home team, read Victorian poetry, and recognize the Pythagorean theorem.  States officials routinely attempt to persuade both students and adults on these matters, yet no one thinks this matters have anything to do with public equality or, for that matter, that there is anything wrong with state persuasion (within limits) on these matters.

Brettschneider may go wrong by thinking his question concerns “state speech is appropriate.”  As Robin West noted in her post, states are always speaking.  Large welfare states try to say more than a million things at once, many of which are inconsistent.  Public education is the most obvious instance of state speech.  States attempt to persuade students of a great many things, only a few of which have much to do with “the idea of public equality.”  In some cases, state officials attempt to persuade people of propositions the state thinks no reasonably informed person could deny.  Some of these may be principles of political theory, such as the idea of public equality.  Others include such scientific and historical truths as the Pythogorean theorem and “Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth president of the United States.”  Sometimes, state officials seek to persuade people of propositions on which the official believes reasonable persons may disagree.  “Cultured persons recognize Victorian poetry is better than the American poetry of the time” is an example of such a proposition.  Finally, the state may seek to persuade people on some matters that may not even be true.  I suspect Mepham High School in the 1970s was not the only institution when state officials and pep clubs subsidized by the state consistently made false predictions that this was the glorious year our football team would actually win a few games.

Two things strike me as true about a general theory of state speech.  First, states attempt to persuade people on matters that are subject to reasonable debate.  The English department has to teach something.  The public symphony orchestra has to play something.  The state ought to be allowed to persuade when state officials believe their arguments are better than alternatives, even while recognizing that alternatives are reasonable.  Second, theories of state speech are likely to be multi-dimensional.  States may speak loudly or softly.  State officials may adopt a common position or a plurality of views.  The state standards for funding may encourage a greater or lesser number of voices, or privilege to a varying degree some speakers over others.

I suspect that Brettschneider will not disagree strongly with most of this.  To some extent, this comment is simply an officious suggestion to a talented young voice to be clearer than When the State Speaks sometimes is about exactly the question being answered.  Still, a more substantive point lurks in the above fussiness.  Brettscheider writes as if the universe can be divided into beliefs consistent with the liberal idea of public equality and beliefs that are inconsistent.  The better view may be that a spectrum of beliefs exist that are more or less consistent with the idea of public equality.  If this is right, than we are likely to need a more nuanced theory of state speech than one that simply says either a belief must never be criticized or the full apparatus of the state, minus criminal sanctions, must be directed at persuading people the belief is wrong.

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