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John Stuart Mill


When examining the
notion of free speech, the branches of ethics and politics come together.

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Ethics requires us to examine our moral principles and regarding free speech, advocates
that all people should be able to express themselves freely without coercion.

One of the most prominent advocates for the rights of humans, including freedom
of speech was British philosopher and political economist John Stuart Mill, who
famously asked upon what grounds the government can restrict peoples’ freedoms
by imposing or enforcing law, or more topically: do social media
providers have a government mandated duty to protect the public from
terroristic speech, and if not them, who should? Mill would approach this by
acknowledging that the representatives of the public when they legislate law
are legislating them to protect the public. The function of law is to protect
liberty, and in a democratic society our representatives are picked by the
elections of the majority. The result is that any act that our representatives
decide is harmful, and define this by law, may cause public acceptance for that
space for free speech to be withdrawn. (Ward 1990, pp.85)


In ‘Utilitarianism,
Liberty, and Representative Government’, John Stuart Mill (1972) presents a
defence of freedom of expression. He argues:


The opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly
be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they
are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all
mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing
to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their
certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion
is an assumption of infallibility.  (Mill & Acton 1972, pp.104)


It is
apparent that Mill is expressing a position sympathizing with the unheard
minority. He adopts numerous approaches in order to defend freedom of speech,
discussion, character and action, and we can apply this to a post on social
media, where for example imagine an individual gives his opinion on the
corruption of America and the strength of ISIS (whilst not inciting coercion).

Mill would argue that although this view might be suppressed by the majority,
this does not equal falsity; there exists no argument that can justifiably
silence an opinion. He continues to explain that the act of assuming that an
opinion should be suppressed due to someone thinking said opinion is false, is
therefore to assume infallibility of the suppressor’s view. As an empiricist,
Mill believed that there existed no direct a
priori understanding of the truth and furthermore, all discussion must be
open and all opinions heard; including opinions that may appear absurd or
offensive. Mill, however also argued that there are certain conditions where
some true opinions must be suppressed as, although perhaps true, they are in
fact harmful. 

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