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The Violence of Free Speech and Press Metaphors


Erin C. Carroll


May 13, 2024

Today, our free speech marketplace is often overwhelming, confusing, and even dangerous. Threats, misdirection, and lies abound. Online firestorms lead to offline violence. This Article argues that the way we conceptualize free speech and the free press are partly to blame: our metaphors are hurting us.

The primary metaphor courts have used for a century to describe free speech—the marketplace of ideas—has been linked to violence since its inception. Originating in a case about espionage and revolution, in a dissent written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a thrice-injured Civil War veteran, the marketplace has been described as a space where competition and force order the rungs on a ladder climbing toward truth. Power and violence are at home in the speech marketplace. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, these same characteristics animate the defining metaphor for a key free speech institution: the press is a “watchdog.” In First Amendment law, the press’s role is to attack government for its misdeeds.

As linguists have shown, metaphors are not simply rhetorical icing. They shape human understanding and behavior—sometimes in dangerous ways. The marketplace and watchdog metaphors have this power, and with it they have helped to create a speech environment where violence can feel routine.

No easy fix exists for the violence in our public sphere. But new metaphors could help us reconceptualize the ways we communicate. This Article explains how and provides examples of just what types of metaphors might work.


Erin C. Carroll, The Violence of Free Speech and Press Metaphors, 81 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 87 (2024).