Ack

I have been thinking about compelled speech: that is, when somebody is forced to perform a certain utterance. Obviously, compelled speech isn’t free. Therefore, in a country like Canada, where free speech is the law, compelled speech is illegal.

But there are surely some exceptions.

Suppose, for example, that you’re a cashier at Safeway. Your boss demands, as a condition of your employment, that you say “have a nice day” to your customers. Can he, legally, do that?

It seems to me the answer is probably “yes.” And not, I think, because the utterance in question is trivial. Rather, your Safeway boss can make you say “have a nice day” because that utterance serves the technical remit of his business. The latter includes being friendly and courteous to customers. So saying “have a nice day” is the same kind of thing as saying “it’s in aisle 9” or “here’s your change.” It’s Safeway-talk, in a context where you have agreed to engage in such talk.

But now suppose your boss wants you to say: “God save the Queen.” Can he do that?

It seems to me the answer is almost certainly “no.” For that utterance is in no way relevant to the technical remit of Safewaying. Rather, it constitutes an expression of a certain political allegiance—monarchism. The latter interacts with Safeway-talk only insofar as it extends to the whole of civic life. Over that, your boss can claim no legal power.

So it would be illegal for your Safeway boss to try to make you say “God save the Queen.” Or any utterance like that.

No doubt, this has all been thought through before, many times. But sometimes, it’s pleasant to work things out on your own. That’s the territory of knowledge.

Author: JD Fleming

I am Professor of English Literature at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. My work is in intellectual history of the early-modern period (1500-1700), with a special interest in epistemic issues around the emergence of modern natural science (the "Scientific Revolution"). In 2012, I initiated the international conference series "Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World."

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