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Knowledge Base

Who Can Restrict Free Speech?

Why isn’t the government allowed to restrict speech?

The basic rule is that anyone who has monopoly power has to be subject to rules to make sure that power will not be abused, because there is nowhere else for people to turn. If the government wanted to, it could shut down any business, speech, or action because it has a monopoly on the use of force. To prevent abuse, we generally impose strong limits on when the government is allowed to prevent people from doing what they want to do.

Why are private groups allowed to restrict speech on their property?

A private group can restrict speech because it isn’t the only option available to people who hold different viewpoints. Forcing a private group to host speech it disagrees with violates its rights in the name of granting them to others. A less intrusive solution is to allow those with opposing viewpoints to form their own organizations and organize as they see fit.

What are monopolies?

Click here to watch the Intellection on monopolies.

A monopoly is a business or organization that has the ability to prevent others from offering competing goods or services. In the case of the federal government, it has a monopoly on the use of force. To protect against potential abuses, it isn’t allowed to restrict speech, subject to the usual limitations against force, fraud, or defamation.

What if there are private companies that are monopolies? Can they limit speech on their property?

There is a special case for entities called “common carriers” that provide public utilities, and they are subject to the same restrictions that the government is when it comes to restricting speech.

While there aren’t that many of them, an example is of a railroad that provided the only route from one city to another. Absent other options of travel, it had a local monopoly on travel. As a common carrier, it would not be allowed to prevent passengers that wanted to protest its business, but needed to get from the first city to the next.

Common carriers are subject to providing fair, reasonable, and nondiscriminatory services.

Why are universities – public or private – allowed to restrict speech using codes of conduct?

Universities, whether they’re privately or publicly funded, face competition for students. If one university decides to impose very strict speech codes, students in a broad sense have the choice to attend elsewhere.