As far as I can tell, the 19th-century liberal notion of a free marketplace of ideas underwrites the absolutist position on free speech: Brendan O’Neill’s for example. The reasoning is that the more competition for our attention, the better the outcome, because we will all have more information.

This is at least a problematic notion because there is no such thing as a free marketplace of ideas, and there never has been – until perhaps now with the Internet. But that raises a different question about the consequences of free speech. Does the choice the market makes render speech valid? Or rather, is majority rule the only measure of democracy?

That transposition from markets to politics is warranted, I believe, because the arguments about free speech on campus presuppose the political purposes of the First Amendment.

As Thomas I. Emerson explained, in an Aristotelian mood, freedom of expression is: (1) a means of self-realization–you can’t become what you want to be when you grow up unless you can freely express yourself. That project of moral development, the possibility of virtue, serves the purposes of (2) attaining the truth through debate and (3) equipping individuals with what they need to participate in political deliberations. And this civic consequence will (4) balance authority and freedom.

All right, let’s test Emerson’s distinction between expression and action according to his own criteria, so conceived. Conclusion first: a workable system of freedom of expression cannot permit majority rule or market choice to determine the scope of deliberative democracy. For in that case, the justification of power becomes circular, falling back on the power of numbers. The Jim Crow South looks democratic through this lens.

How else to justify the exercise of power over speech or anything else? Consent, and only consent. You can’t justify the exercise of power by reference to power, whether it is the power of weapons, intelligence, or numbers. But that leads back to free speech because only those granted this right can freely consent to the limitations of the law or the local authority (the college administration, or the student body in the case of campus speech).

And yet free speech in the absolutist mode makes us mute in the face of carefully informed, academically ornamented, hateful speech like the kind that has come out of George Mason University since James Buchanan reigned there, or the University of Chicago since Herbert Simon and Milton Friedman went for broke. In this rhetorical context, Charles Murray appears as a scholar rather than a fool on a racist errand – just another opinion among many other empirically grounded places to put your faith.

So it comes down to consent, and only consent. Follow the money. Is it speech? Am I consenting when, as and because I merely attend an event that celebrates free speech on campus as funded by Charles G. Koch and James Arthur Pope – notorious foes of what I understand, as a historian, to be freedom?

Follow the students. Are they onto something about this free speech business? Like, it’s a marketplace of ideas, OK, but it sure as hell ain’t free, and we need to guard against the pretension that it is. How? That is the question.