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. Read More