The pros and cons
There are good reasons to preserve freedom of speech – the case is made with formidable power in John Stuart Mill’s classic text, On Liberty (1859). In a society in which speech is free, there will be an interchange of ideas, truths that damage those in power will be more difficult to suppress, and common views will not ossify into dead dogmas. However, freedom of speech also has its dangers: speech could damage a state (that is, betray state secrets); speech could incite violence against people, and speech could offend other people.
We can look at these, as indeed Mill looked at these, against the background of his ‘one simple principle’: ‘That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.’ However, when it comes to the actual details, things are not so clear.
Take betraying state secrets. When Edward Snowden leaked all kinds of state secrets to the press, was he inflicting damage on the legitimate activities of the state, or was he bringing to light activities that really should not have been being performed by the state? What is the line between protecting information, the release of which would be damaging to the state, and protecting information, the release of which would be embarrassing to the state? Where that line should be drawn is one matter, but all sides agree that it should be drawn somewhere.
The dangers of free speech
The second issue, speech that incites violence, is also tricky. Mill himself thought that people should not be allowed to put the blame for hunger on corn dealers to an angry mob outside a corn dealer’s house (in his example), even though they should be allowed to express those views in a newspaper. There are all too many instances of speech causing, or being part of the cause of terrible events.
The genocide in Rwanda was helped along by radio broadcasts in which Tutsis were called ‘cockroaches’, who needed to be ‘exterminated’. Should, however, all speech that might incite violence be banned? What if there really is a group of people in a society who really are doing terrible things? Drawing attention to those things might well increase the probability of violence being committed against that group, but would it be wrong to do so? This, of course, underpins the complaint that ‘political correctness’ has prevented those in authority from calling out bad behaviour supposedly characteristic of certain racial groups.
Harm and offence
Perhaps the trickiest is whether we should ban speech that causes offence. Mill’s thought seemed to be that offence will cause discomfort, but discomfort is not a harm. At least, discomfort is not enough of a harm to outweigh the benefit of freedom of speech. There are at least two issues here that we would need to sort out. The first is to work out where to draw the line between speech that causes offence that should be banned, and speech that causes offence that should be allowed. The second is to work out whether there really is a difference, in principle, between offence and harm.
Some might say that any speech that gives offence should be banned. The implications of doing this would be draconian. Some people are very sensitive – imagine if I were offended by the very mention of homosexuality. Would that be a reason – any reason at all – to ban such speech? Knowing this fact about me, it might be polite not to bring the topic up in my company (on the other hand, there might be other reasons to do so), but that falls a long way short of banning it.
Others might say the mere fact that speech causes offence should never be a reason to ban it. As Voltaire’s biographer put it in summing up the great philosopher’s views, ‘I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ This also does not seem right. Should people have to endure racist or sexist abuse? Should whole communities be made to feel uncomfortable by being described in derogatory terms? Somewhere between these two positions, a line needs to be drawn, but it is difficult to see where. On the other issue, whether there really is a clear distinction between harm and offence, Mill now seems a little naïve. We know more than he did about the psychological damage done to people by relentless hounding, or by hate speech.
Treading the line between being too restrictive about what people are allowed to say, and being too permissive, is one of the big challenges faced by societies. Getting it wrong either way brings real dangers. It is, perhaps, one of the best ways of judging a society to see where it draws the line.
Mill, John Stuart. (1974). On Liberty. London: Penguin Books.
Hall, Evelyn Beatrice. (2015). The Life of Voltaire. London: Arkose Press.