Berns on Free Speech

Bradley C. S. Watson, remarks from Claremont Institute APSA roundtable, September 2015.


Like few others, Walter Berns made it his life’s work to remind us of the reciprocal relationship between rights and duties, individualism and the common good, civil liberties and political liberty. And that we play a zero sum game when we try to expand the former without proper regard for the latter.

Perhaps it’s the case that in our democratic zeal for the former—for rights, for individualism, for civil liberties—we can no longer even see the latter—duties, the common good, political liberty—in their fullness, or even at all.

Berns noted early on in his career that “virtue,” for modern liberals and libertarians, always connotes authoritarianism and bigotry.

The problem of free speech, for Berns, is ultimately the problem of virtue. Law must form character, and as such cannot be reduced to any simple-minded slogan, like “clear and present danger.”

Bradley C. S. Watson [pdf]