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What Are the Limits of Freedom of Speech?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1993 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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What are the limits of freedom of speech? It is a pressing question at a moment when conspiracy theories help to fuel fascist politics around the world.[1] Shouldn’t liberal democracy promote a full airing of all possibilities, even false and bizarre ones, because the truth will eventually prevail? No-platforming, the practice of blocking an individual from speaking at a university because of her expressed moral or political views, is becoming more and more common at universities across the United Kingdom and the United States. The idea behind no-platforming is that enabling public discussion of certain ideas threatens the safety of minority groups. It is different from merely protesting a speaker. Protest typically serves to communicate disagreement. It is a form of communication that is compatible with liberal ideas of free speech and tolerance, at least in theory.[2] By contrast, no platforming generally expressed the view that the targeted person is morally or politically beyond the pale, and that they should thus be denied a voice on campus. In classical liberal thought, free speech is put forward as the foundation of a utilitarian account of political and technological progress, one that views the combat of intellectuals as the crucible of social progress. The free expression of informed elite opinion is imagined as an indispensable catalyst to modernity’s ever accelerating development of new knowledge. The clash of unfettered intellect is supposed to serve as the engine of history.

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Arguably philosophy’s most well-known defense of the freedom of speech was articulated by British philosopher John Stuart Mill. In chapter two of On Liberty, “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” Mill contends that silencing any opinion is wrong, even if the opinion is false, because knowledge only arises from the “collision of truth with error” (2010, 3). To put it in other words, Mill believes that belief can only manifest as knowledge by emerging victorious when put to the test against competing beliefs. Mill says, “If all mankind minus one, were, of one opinion, and only one person was of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind” (2010, 20). Mill is opposed to tyranny in all its forms: the tyranny of the state, but also the tyranny of public opinion. 

Mill’s, On Liberty, is often said to propose a “marketplace of ideas”, a realm that, if left to operate on its own will reach an equilibrium by driving out prejudice and producing knowledge.[3] But, similar to the concept of a free market in Economics, this idea only hold true in theory. In the theory of the “marketplace of ideas”, one side offers its argument which is then countered by the other side until the truth emerges victorious. However, dialogue is not used just to communicate information but also to contain perspectives and amplify prejudice. Mill believes that only knowledge emerges from arguments between opponents. Let us consider the Russian Television network RT, whose motto is “Question More.”[4] In accordance with Mill’s belief, RT, which features voices from extreme ends of the political spectrum should be the best source of knowledge. However, RT’s strategy was not to produce knowledge, but as a propaganda technique to destabilize democratic institutions. The effect of RT is to undermine the shared reality that is of paramount important for the functioning of a democracy.

The “marketplace skepticism” argument illustrated above is founded on two key assumptions that cannot be evidentially backed. Historical evidence about intolerant ideas demonstrably changing into harmful action comes largely from deeply debilitated democracies such as the Weimar Republic. There exists no such causal effect identified amongst the stable democracies that have emerged since the Second World War.[5] Nevertheless, let us put that idea on the side and accept that people do not always choose pluralist ideas. However, the responsibility of an educational institute is not to teach individuals what to think but how to think and, in doing so, to create a marketplace of ideas. The mission of an education institution is not to construct perfectly homogeneous individuals, but to promote the discordant marketplace of ideas.

This argument can be countered by arguing that universities are increasingly becoming hotbeds of extremism and they should ban speakers that push such ideologies as racism, hetero-normative patriarchy or anti-Semitism. For instance, Milo Yiannopoulous was invited to meetings and rallies at the University of Berkeley without the prior knowledge of university officials, which led to violence amongst student groups at Berkeley. While fostering a cacophonous marketplace of ideas is an important aspect of an educational institution, the safety of each one of its members takes precedence. It is not only the universities’ prerogative but their duty to quell such dangers. However, an impediment in our debate about free speech is the constant relapse into balancing freedoms against their supposed dangers. Mill touched upon this in On Liberty calling it the harm principle, where he argued 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” (1859, –). The question we must pose is not how much freedom of speech we should “grant” individuals. Accordingly, instead of banning speakers, individuals and clubs that invite speakers should invite every member of the community to listen and engage with speakers. As seen countless times in contemporary history, limiting freedoms to avert unacceptable risks is a faulty principle that falls flat on its face.[6] During the McCarthy communist trials, Supreme Court Justice William Douglas argue that the greatest threat to dangerous ideas was “open and relentless exposure”.[7]

Another argument that is frequently put forth in support of no-platforming argues that universities are not value-neutral. Their prestige, if not substantively endorsing, nevertheless institutionally grants credence to the views of guest speakers. Controversial western figures might well face the full force of public scrutiny, but once non-western figures have “bathed in the limelight of a well-reputed western academic forum, they then exploit such speaking invitation to bolster their image at home” (Heinze 2016). For instance, in 2007 former Iranian Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at Columbia University where he stated, “In Iran we don’t have homosexuals, like in your country, In Iran we do not have this phenomenon. I don’t know who told you that we have it.”[8] However, this argument is inherently flawed in our globalized digital world, where information travels fast and far. Images of gay people reveling or of hyper-sexualized women actively spur regimes like Saudi Arabia and Russia to crack down on sexual minorities or women. In such countries, minority groups are suffering due to the freedom of speech and expression granted to individuals living in liberal democracies. However, this does not mean that people should repress their sexuality or women should not be scantily dressed. Nor, by extension, should free speech in universities inside the U.S. be curtailed in order to avoid bad effects outside of the U.S.

It must also be acknowledged that guest speakers are invited by members of the university community. The disadvantage of no-platforming does not impact the guest speaker, but members of the university community who wish to hear the speaker. No student should not be deprived of the opportunity to critically interrogate controversial speakers in person, as part of an educational institute’s commitment to create informed citizens. Additionally, advocates for no-platforming do not speak for every minority group or each member of a particular minority group. Any claims that they do only reinforces the identity-based community that no-platformers speak out against. The practice of no-platforming is an example of paternalism, which is the interference of the state or an individual with another person, against their will, and defended by the claim that the person interfered with will be better off or protected from harm. There is no objective way for a third part observer to decide which actions are in another individual’s best interest. John Locke, in his Two Treatises of Government, argues that political and paternal power cannot be identified (2010, 6). Mill opposes the practice of paternalism on the grounds that individuals know their own good better than the state does, and that paternalism disrupts the development of independent character. (2010, 14).

Advocates of the practice of no-platforming fail to understand that when an individual’s or group’s subjective reaction to speech is allowed to determine what can be said, the expressive rights of no individual are secure. If liberty of expression is stifled, Mill argues that the price paid is “a sort of intellectual pacification” that sacrifices “the entire moral courage of the human mind” (2010, 30). Additionally, the practice of no-platforming is counterproductive to the goal educational institutes have of producing informed citizens and leaders. Attempting to stifle controversial ideas denies individuals the opportunity to understand criticisms of their own viewpoints. Controversial beliefs cannot simply be muted, they must be defeated in the marketplace of ideas. And to be defeated, they must be fully understood.




[3] Stanley, Jason. “What John Stuart Mill Got Wrong about Freedom of Speech.” Boston Review. September 04, 2018. Accessed November 18, 2018. http://bostonreview.net/politics-philosophy-religion/jason-stanley-what-mill-got-wrong-about-freedom-of-speech.

[4] Haring, Bruce. “Russian News Network RT On Washington D.C. Airwaves? Nyet!” Deadline. April 02, 2018. Accessed November 19, 2018. https://deadline.com/2018/03/russian-news-network-rt-on-washington-dc-airwaves-nyet-1202356427/.

[5] See Ikenberry 2009

[6] “The Misguided Movement to “no Platform” Steve Bannon.” FIRE. February 02, 2018. Accessed November 19, 2018. https://www.thefire.org/the-misguided-movement-to-no-platform-steve-bannon/.

[7] Douglas, William O. “Judicial Treatment of Non-Conformists.” Modern American Poetry. Accessed November 19, 2018. http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/mccarthy/douglas.htm.

[8] “Ahmadinejad Speaks; Outrage and Controversy Follow.” CNN. Accessed November 19, 2018. http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/09/24/us.iran/.


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