Blackmail, Copyright, Libel and Free Speech

A recent Volokh post on Blackmail discusses the perennial question of when speech becomes constitutionally unprotected blackmail. The idea here is that there is a “tension” between blackmail law and free speech rights. And even though we know blackmail law suppresses free speech, most people are in favor of it anyway. Volokh calls this dilemma “one of the thorniest conceptual questions in all of jurisprudence” and summaries what is “sometimes called the Blackmail Paradox”. The blackmail paradox observes that A is generally free to publish embarrassing information about B, or to keep quiet about it; and A is free to ask B for money to do or refrain from doing something within A’s rights. Yet

if I ask you for money or a service in exchange for my not revealing embarrassing information about you, then that’s a crime.

What’s the explanation? Legal scholars have debated this for decades, and to my knowledge have not come up with a perfectly satisfactory answer.

I disagree with Volokh. The answer is simple: blackmail law is incompatible with individual rights and should not exist, as argued by Walter Block and Murray N. Rothbard.1 The paradox only arises when you try to justify free speech and a law that undermines it. Yes, there is a “tension” between such law and free speech; it should be resolved not by finding the right “balance,” but by rejecting the unlibertarian law altogether.

Intellectual property, in its various forms—including patent and trademark, but most especially copyright—also limits, chills, and suppresses freedom of speech and of the press. And thus in these cases too, mainstreamers and statists, who think we “must” have these laws, but who recognize the tension between them and civil liberties, fall back on the confused and utterly unprincipled “we must find a balance” approach. As Ayn Rand might say, you don’t want to find a balance between nutritious food and poison.

As noted, trademark and even patent, and ohter types of IP such as publicity rights, undermine freedom of speech.2 But the most pernicious in this respect is copyright, which threatens not only freedom of the press and freedom of speech, but Internet freedom itself.3 In the name of copyright, books are censored and suppressed and chilled.4 As noted, this is a vivid illustration of a situation where libertarians and classical liberals are forced to try to adopt a “balance” between fake, positive-law rights and libertarian rights. Once an artificial, non-libertarian right is enshrined in law, it necessarily invades the turf of real, negative rights, much like printing more money dilutes the value of existing money by way of inflation.

Even the courts recognize that copyright (and defamation) laws are incompatible with free speech and the First Amendment. This is actually an argument that these and related laws are unconstitutional. After all, federal legislation on trademark and defamation (libel)is not even authorized in the Constitution. So such laws are doubly unconstitutional: they are not authorized, and are hus ultra vires, and they are incompatible with the First Amendment. Copyright law, by contrast, is authorized in the Constitution. However, the Copyright Act is clearly incompatible with the First Amendendment. What is one to do, in the case of such a conflict? Well in this case, the First Amendment was ratified in 1791, two years after the Constitution and its copyright clause (1789). Therefore, to the extent of any conflict, the later-ratified provision takes precedence. In other words, the First Amendment makes copyright uconstitutional. Not that the courts see it that way, of course. But still.5

The point is: libertarians and others who believe in civil liberties, Internet freedom, freedom of speech and of hte press, should oppose positive state laws that are inconsistent with theese rights, including blackmail, defamation, trademark, and copyright law.

Addendum: Another “tension” in federal law is that between antitrust and trademark law. The former purports to oppose monopolies, while the latter grants them. See Pro-IP Libertarians Upset about FTC Poaching Patent TurfState Antitrust (anti-monopoly) law versus state IP (pro-monopoly) law. In this case, both IP and antitrust law need to go: IP law, because it forms monopolies that antitrust law claims to oppose; antitrust law, because it focuses on private companies, which cannot form true monopolies, and ignores the real monopolies formed by the state itself.


  1. See Rothbard, “Knowledge, True and False,” in the Ethics of Liberty; and various articles on blackmail on Block’s publications page (including our co-authored piece The Second Paradox of Blackmail), Defending the Undefendable, ch. 6, and Block’s Legalize Blackmail (Straylight, forthcoming 2012).  

  2. Trademark as Censorship: Newspaper Claims Satirical Blogger Mentioning Its Name Is Trademark Infringement; Copyright and Free Trade; Patents and CensorshipPatents Threaten To Silence A Little Girl, Literally; Cato/Reason/CEO brief opposing medical diagnostic process patents as violating freedom of speechWilt Chamberlain’s Family Tries To Block Film About His College Years, Claiming ‘Publicity Rights’Michael Jordan Sues Grocery Stores for Hall of Fame Congratulatory Ads. See also “Types of Intellectual Property.” 

  3. See Where does IP Rank Among the Worst State Laws?

  4. Howard Hughes, Copyright, and Censorship; The Patent, Copyright, Trademark, and Trade Secret Horror Files; Should Copyright Be Allowed to Override Speech Rights?; Libraries: Prepare to burn foreign books, courtesy copyright law; Paramount Trying to Ban “Godfather” Sequels with Copyright; Federalist Society Asks: What’s the Right Amount of Censorship?other posts

  5. Copyright Censorship versus Free Speech and Human Rights; Excessive Fines and the Eighth Amendment; Copyright is Unconstitutional

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  • I am not sure where I should direct this but I was wondering if I could re-post this, with credit and a link given of course, on my blog It’s a great article and thanks for writing it.

    • We have a CC-BY notice at the bottom of this site, on its footer. That means you can re-use all the stuff on here without permission. But if you want it, you have it.