Opinion: Our society must stand together in defence of Freedom of Speech – TheLiberal.ie – Our News, Your Views
August 16, 2017

Opinion: Our society must stand together in defence of Freedom of Speech

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, despite an outpouring of sympathy for the victims, serious calls were being made for a curtailment of free speech, so as to avoid further atrocities and prevent offending minority groups, in particular, Muslims.

Liberal voices spoke out, just as vociferously, opposing any such restrictions. The question being posed in this debate is where and when is it justified to limited freedom of speech.

The danger exists in the fact that once freedom of speech is limited in one sphere of discourse, it stands to mind that this will overtime be extended to make other subjects taboo or off limits. This will inexorably lead to the stagnation of our understanding of certain issues.

Therefore only in very rare and extreme cases should an individual or group’s freedom of speech be limited.

As cited by, Will Cartwright “truth is a casualty in the suppression of free discussion” (John Stuart Mill on Freedom of Discussion, 2003). This is self-evident, from our experiences of totalitarian regimes throughout history and in the world today.

It is often cited that in the interest of public safety or national security, that the suppression of freedom of speech and expression is justified, however time and again it is demonstrated that these measures are designed to protect the status quo.

It is imperative for a free and democratic society that freedom of expression be maintained as a safeguard for all subsequent civil liberties.

It is not however, only legislation that can threaten free speech, the predominant ideology or beliefs of the day can also act as a detriment to freedom of expression.

Will Cartwright notes that Mill saw a ‘danger to freedom of expression from the oppressive public opinion more so than from legislation’ (Mill on Freedom of Discussion, 2003 P. 1). This is seen today in the form of the protests against speakers on university campuses in the United States, because they disagree with the popular ideology.

Feminist author Christina Hoff Sommers, for example has had difficulty speaking on Campuses due to protests as reported by Valerie Richards (Washington Times, April 2015).

Limits to freedom of speech may be necessary in some circumstance, for example if one was to directly extoll or call for violence against a person or group of persons, but as noted by Will Cartwright, Mill’s stance was that ‘speech should not be curtailed merely because someone may find it offensive’ (p5 Mill on freedom of Discussion, 2003). When we look at and consider curtailing freedom of speech, we should always consider John Stuart Mill’s “Harm Principle” as outlined his book “On Liberty” (Kitchner, 2001).

The “Harm Principle” as put forth by Mills work “On Liberty” Chapter one, calls for a simple question to be posed when considering curtailing someone’s freedom of speech and that is , ‘is the use of power over this individual solely for the purpose of preventing harm to another’.

This however begs the question, as to what exactly constitutes harm. Michael Lacewig in his paper “Mill’s Harm Principle” acknowledges that Mill never gives a solid definition of what harm is but points out that Mill’s uses words such as ‘damage or injury’ and we can infer that causing offence to a person, while it may be unpleasant for the parties concerned does not in most circumstances cause physical injury or loss. This is important to note when we remember the Charlie Hebdo incident, there is no one substantial evidence that the images and articles that caused offence and provoked the atrocity, caused anyone any physical harm or loss. Therefore this is be acceptable use of freedom of speech, at least in Mill’s eyes.

One of the most important reasons for defending and indeed promoting controversial and even offensive free speech is to push back against the self-censoring and often blatantly draconian, politically correct forces that have become so pervasive in recent years.

 From threats, intimidation and the lobbying for suppressive legislation these individuals and groups now pose a very real danger to some of the core principles of western society. It is noted that many of those who print and publish controversial images or pieces of work, do not do so with the aim of offending those who appear to be the object of their derision but rather as a way of pushing back against the censors. Onora O’Neill, professor of philosophy at Cambridge, notes this in his article” Right to Offend” for the Guardian Newspaper in February, 2006. Commenting on the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten’s publishing of controversial depictions of the prophet Mohammed and the subsequent protests and violence, he stipulates that the publications may well have been more so intended to “provoke self-censoring Danes” rather than Muslims or other minority groups.

The words of President John F Kennedy should be remembered in these overly sensitive times, when in the light of the Bay of Pigs invasion he stated, that ‘newspapers are not just for entertainment but to inform, to arouse, to reflect.. and sometimes even anger public opinion’.(sic)This angering of public opinion with thoughtful and considered commentary and earnest researches rapidly becoming an anathema, in the eyes of the Millennial generation. The phenomenon of “safe spaces” is spreading across campuses in the United States. Sophie Downes writing for the “New York Times” describes these “safe spaces” as “especially but not limited to those who have endured trauma or feel marginalized — can feel comfortable talking about their experiences” in New York Times, Opinions, September, 2016. This is in direct contravention of Mill’s harm principle and this was echoed in a letter from the University of Chicago to incoming students for the academic year of 2016, which stated that the University ‘would not protect students from ideas they disagreed with or found offensive’. Leonor Vivanco and Dawn Rhodes, writing for the Chicago Tribune, August, 2016, state how the University “warned the incoming class of 2020 to be prepared for debate, discussion and possible discomfort”. This may surprise many that prospective university students need to be told this, however it is becoming more and more necessary to state these basic tenets of academic life.

We are living in very interesting times, as the flow of information becomes ever faster and more easily accessible, it has paradoxically given rise to a movement of censorship. This movement has emerged from one of the most unlikely sources, the college campus and academia in general. The defence of freedom of speech, one would think, would be in the highest interest of the existing and future academia, but an ideology, often described as political correctness now threatens this most fundamental inalienable right. Individuals now self-censor out of fear of ridicule or condemnation. An entire generation is now being raised and educated in an atmosphere where this behaviour is not only acceptable but insisted upon. These are our future leaders and legislators; many are so absolutely convinced that people have a right not to be offended they will resort to protests and demonstration to stifle the free speech of those who they disagree with. If we do not recognize this metastasizing problem as an existential threat to the foundations of our democratic, western civilization, future generations may grow up in a radically different society, where freedom of speech and ultimately thought, is a memory.


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