Self-Fulfillment Theory of Free Speech

Scholars and jurists have offered many theories to explain why freedom of speech is an especially important constitutional right. The ‘‘marketplace of ideas’’ metaphor, which justifies freedom of speech on the notion that competition in the marketplace of ideas is the best test of truth, is perhaps the most famous example. The ‘‘self-governance’’ rationale, which links the importance of freedom of speech to the democratic process, is another. A third prominent rationale is the ‘‘self-fulfillment’’ theory. This may also at times be described as the ‘‘human dignity’’ rationale, or the ‘‘self-realization’’ theory.

Under the ‘‘self-fulfillment’’ theory, free speech may be justified as an end itself, an end intimately intertwined with human autonomy and dignity. In Procunier v. Martinez, for example, the Supreme Court noted that—‘‘The First Amendment serves not only the needs of the polity but the needs of the human spirit–a spirit that demands self-expression.’’ The self-fulfillment rationale justifies the protection of freedom of speech for reasons that are not connected directly to the collective search for truth or the processes of self-government, or for any other conceptualization of the common good. As Professor C. Edwin Baker thus explains the theory, ‘‘Speech is protected not as a means of a collective good but because of the value of speech conduct to the individual.’’ Freedom of speech is thus deemed a right to defiantly, robustly, and irreverently speak one’s mind just because it is one’s mind. The fulfillment that comes from speech is bonded to man’s capacity to think, imagine, and create. The linkage of speech to thought, to man’s central capacity to reason and wonder, justifies placing it beyond the routine jurisdiction of the state. As the Supreme Court explained in Stanley v. Georgia, the ‘‘right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.’’


References and Further Reading

  • Baker, C. Edwin, Scope of First Amendment Freedom of Speech, U.C.L.A. Law Review 25 (1978): 964, 966.
  • Smolla, Rodney. Free Speech in an Open Society. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
  • ———. Suing the Press: Libel, the Media, and Power. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974)
  • Stanley v. Georgia, 394 U.S. 557 (1969)


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