Abigail George | Does a Right to Free Speech Have a Place in Cooperative Movements?

Lessons from Simone Weil and American Jurisprudence

By Abigail George

Freedom of expression—increasingly politicized and applied selectively—is an enigma. Enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it is a hallmark of libertarian and neoliberal American capitalism and has recently been weaponized to bolster discriminatory, hateful speech. Yet freedom of expression has also played a crucial role in historic social resistance movements, especially in opposing totalitarianism. Simone Weil, a French philosopher writing during early twentieth-century European fascism, developed a nuanced understanding of freedom of expression. In The Need for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind, Weil advocates for absolute freedom of expression for certain kinds of individual speech, stressing the importance of individual freedom of expression for nurturing intelligence. It may seem counterintuitive that Weil does not extend that freedom to groups or to personal speech destined to influence the opinions and actions of others. In stark contrast to Weil’s perspective, the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence grants freedom of expression protections to groups and commercial speech. This blog post will explore the nuances of Weil’s philosophy of freedom of expression to shed light on free speech’s complex role in contemporary cooperative movements and structures of oppression alike.

Foremost, Weil’s theory must be examined through her premise that freedom of expression is rooted in human intelligence. Weil declares, “complete, unlimited freedom of expression for every sort of opinion, without the least restriction or reserve, is an absolute need on the part of the intelligence.”[1] Weil specifies that intelligence operates in three distinct ways: as a “servant’” solving technical problems, as a guide for decisionmaking, and as an independent force in theoretical speculation.[2] The third form of intelligence—which operates alone to form opinions and is independent of action—is also the proper realm for absolute freedom of expression.[3]

To safeguard this third category of intelligence, freedom of expression applies to certain categories of publications but not others. Weil distinguishes two categories or “fields” of publications: those that fall outside of the realm of action and those that form part of action. The law ought to guarantee absolute freedom of expression to the first field, which are works that “d[o] not pledge their authors in any way and contain[] no direct advice for readers.”[4] In other words, these are works that contribute to the societal record or tabulation of problems so that others may use them as an evidentiary basis in the expression of their individual intelligence. In contrast, absolute freedom of expression does not extend to the second field, which consists of publications “destined to influence . . . opinion [or] the conduct of life.”[5] The second field of publications includes newspapers, press and revues, and are “subject[] to the same restrictions as are all acts.”[6] In this vein, Weil condemns writers who claim “art for art’s sake” to escape accountability for the enormous influence of their works on people’s thoughts and actions. “One might just as well claim the privileges of art for art’s sake in support of crime.”[7]

Weil’s contentious remarks may be clarified by understanding that freedom of expression affords individual liberty by allowing one to exercise their intelligence with access to full information and facts, independent from nefarious influences. For that same reason, freedom of expression requires certain restrictions. Speech that tells someone what to think or do undermines the ultimate goal of freedom of expression: independent, theoretical speculation. Along these lines, Weil warns about the dangers of propaganda and misinformation. She stresses that individuals must be protected from “suggestion, propaganda, [and] influence by means of obsession”[8] as these media exert a quasi-physical force on their audience. They are “a special kind of constraint, not accompanied by fear or physical distress, but which is nonetheless a form of violence.”[9] Furthermore, the state ought to take an active role in cultivating an environment free from these constraints. In addition to never making use of these methods itself, a state has an affirmative duty to prevent their use by others. For example, states should severely control advertisements and can restrict the press, radio broadcasts and similar media “without in any way infringing on freedom of opinion.”[10]

In addition to precluding publications intended to influence opinion or actions, Weil does not extend freedom of expression to groups or collective entities. She reasons that groups do not possess intelligence in the same way individuals do, and thus lack a need for freedom of expression.[11] In addition to being nonsensical, she argues that groups cannot claim such freedom since the expression of opinions by a group often leads to those opinions being imposed upon its members.[12] This imposition is antithetical to the very nature of intelligence, which must be individual. “The intelligence is defeated as soon as the expression of one’s thoughts is preceded, explicitly or implicitly, by the little word ‘we.’”[13] In other words, humans tend to impose their thoughts on others and expect others to adopt their views simply due to a shared affinity or group. As such, there’s a risk that groups that express opinions will enforce these views on individuals, squashing an individual’s capacity for intelligence.

Pivoting to the current American context, one way that Supreme Court jurisprudence directly conflicts with Weil’s vision of freedom of expression is in its expansive protections of commercial speech. In Central Hudson v. Public Service Commission, the Court held that a utility company’s advertisements attempting to induce purchases of their utility services were protected by the First Amendment.[14] By distorting the First Amendment to grant wide protections to commercial speech, the Supreme Court not only furnishes the legal foundation for American predatory capitalism, it also ironically jeopardizes true freedom of expression. Commercial speech, by definition, aims to influence opinion by encouraging specific market action, so giving it essentially free rein generates an environment where independent thought and intelligence suffer.

Furthermore, contrary to Weil’s caution about protecting groups free speech rights, U.S. legal precedents extend First Amendment protections to groups such as non-profits, corporations, and unions.[15] In one of the most notorious corporate free speech cases in recent years, Citizens United, the Supreme Court struck down § 203 of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which barred corporations and unions from using general treasury funds to advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate in the final buildup to elections.[16] Ironically, the Court condemned the provision as “censorship” and reasoned that corporations ought to be able to present their facts and opinions to the public.[17] Yet, when these groups expressly advocate for the election or defeat of specific candidates (and use group funds to do so), they engage in precisely the type of dangerous monopolization of thought that Weil warned about. As a matter of illustration, for the National Rifle Association or even the Sierra Club to take a strong candidate stance near elections is to subject all their members to the same opinion and pressure the same political action. Weil’s reflections expose how these “free speech” protections work to flatten heterogeneity of thought.

The dangers in protecting freedom of expression for groups—which are heightened in electoral contexts—can be illuminated by Weil’s scathing condemnation of political parties.[18] For Weil, political parties sap one’s ability to think independently and freely. Recall that intelligence is fundamentally and necessarily individual, meaning that each person has come to their own understanding of various issues by evaluating the evidence presented by their “inner light.”[19] One should not come think what they think because of some group affiliation like being “French or Catholic or Socialist.”[20] Political parties have a dulling effect on individual intelligence as they are organizations with far-reaching influence that often require or expect their members to blindly support various positions without fully understanding them. In so doing, a political party effectively substitutes its own judgment for that of the individual, leading to a situation where the person is not truly engaging in independent thought. Political parties also generate collective passions that exert pressure upon their members’ souls. In this way, “the essential tendency of all political parties is towards totalitarianism.”[21]

Weil’s reflections on the dangers of political parties and groups can help us sketch the proper role of freedom of expression within cooperative forms. In her condemnation, Weil distinguishes associations of interests and associations of ideas. While associations of interests are preferred, any association that involves ideas should be a “fluid social medium” that doesn’t excommunicate members “for the crime of having an opinion of one’s own,” and ensure that ideas are really “put into circulation.”[22] Accordingly, cooperatives must ensure that they allow individual members to hold dissenting opinions and should not require their members to endorse any opinions or adopt any actions. An association is suspect if it has “too great a uniformity of opinion.”[23] Weil’s vision of cooperatives reflects her ideas of freedom of expression.  Cooperatives should be unified around a common interest rather than be a collective of a single, unified ideological or political thought. Moreover, cooperatives ought to be fluid and members should not begin to identify fully with the cooperative. “This fluidity is the hallmark of a circle based on natural affinities; it distinguishes a circle from a party and prevents it from exerting a noxious influence.”[24]

In conclusion, freedom of expression presents a crucial nexus for thinking about cooperative forms in relation to the current legally sanctioned dominance of corporate forms. Weil simultaneously advocated for absolute freedom of expression for individual speech not pertaining to action and for restrictions on speech aiming to influence the actions or thoughts of others, such as advertisements. Since expression is a product of individual intelligence, she believed that it was not only nonsensical but also dangerous to extend freedom of expression to groups. Groups run the risk of undermining individual freedom and thought (and thereby expression) by implicitly or explicitly dictating that a single set of ideas apply to all members. This underscores the idea that freedom of expression is most meaningful and necessary at the level of the individual, where thoughts are not coerced by group dynamics or the pressure to conform.

The American legal system’s current free speech jurisprudence neglects Weil’s lessons by extending freedom of speech to commercial speech, which is clearly intended to influence another’s actions. It further jeopardizes freedom of expression by extending free speech to corporate groups who can use their shared funds to advocate for certain political positions on behalf of the entire group, thereby subjecting all its members to a single thought rather than allowing freedom of thought and opinion.

If we are to heed the lessons of Weil, it follows that cooperatives should avoid being structured around shared ideas as they risk expounding particular viewpoints or opinions. Instead, cooperatives should bring together individuals based on shared interests and act like “fluid social mediums,” encouraging internal disagreement and diversity of thought. But don’t take my word for it.


[1] Simone Weil, The Needs for Roots: Prelude to a Declaration of Duties towards Mankind 21(Arthur Wills trans., 1952).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at 22.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 23.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. at 24.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 25.

[11] Weil, The Need for Roots, supra note 1, at 25. (“No group can legitimately claim freedom of expression because no group has the slightest need of it.”).

[12] Id. Groups should not be permitted to express opinions “for when a group starts having opinions, it inevitably tends to impose them on its members.” Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Cent. Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of New York, 447 U.S. 557 (1980).

[15] First Nat. Bank of Bos. v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 784 (1978) (“We thus find no support in the First or Fourteenth Amendment, or in the decisions of this Court, for the proposition that speech that otherwise would be within the protection of the First Amendment loses that protection simply because its source is a corporation.”).

[16] Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

[17] Id.

[18] Simone Weil, On the Abolition of All Political Parties (Simon Leys trans., 1943). She wrote this near the end of her life in 1943.

[19] Id. at 18.

[20] Id.

[21] Id. at 14. According to Weil, many individuals are nevertheless eager to associate themselves with such groups because of the ease of avoiding critical thought.

[22] Weil, The Need for Roots, supra note 1, at 27, 30.

[23] Id. at 30.

[24] Id. at 29­–30.