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On Liberty

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Censorship, Liberty & The Media

Delilah and Chris Caldwell talk freely about the freedom of information for Mill.

On the face of it, contemporary society, European, American and further, has easier access to more information and a wider range of opinions than ever before. Yet contrary to appearances, a fair bit of censorship exists – both intentional and unintentional. In On Liberty, Mill provides a defense of freedom of thought and discussion which is at odds with the contemporary legal and cultural forces which promote censorship. His arguments and insights from 150 years ago illuminate what is wrong with these cultural and legal forces.

At the end of Chapter 2 of On Liberty, Mill provides a striking recapitulation of the main reasons he supports freedom of thought and expression of that thought. He summarizes thirty five pages of argument in the following marvelously clear passage:

First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility.

Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth: and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.

Thirdly, even if the received opinion be not only true, but the whole truth; unless it is suffered to be, and actually is, vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds. And not only this, but, fourthly, the meaning of the doctrine itself will be in danger of being lost or enfeebled, and deprived of its vital effect on the character and conduct: the dogma becoming a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good, but cumbering the ground and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction from reason or personal experience. (p.50)

All four of Mill’s reasons are clearly driven by his commitment to maximizing good consequences in all actions. Mill’s central consideration is that silencing an opinion will have such negative consequences for the pursuit of truth that it makes the silencing of any opinion unjustifiable. These four reasons also provide insights into how our current situation of censorship and freedom of expression should be conceived.

Illegal Speech

In the contemporary world, limits on freedom of speech are justified on grounds of preventing harm to others. At least on the face of it, such a justification is in line with Mill’s harm principle and his concern to maximize good consequences and minimize or eliminate harm to others. For example, for quite some time it has been illegal in Germany to deny the Holocaust. In 2005, Germany also made it illegal to celebrate Nazi rule in any way that would disrupt public peace or violate the dignity of the victims. These additional constraints were moti vated by the right-wing German National Party (NPD) planning a march marking the 60th anniversary of the end of WWII.

Denials that the Holocaust occurred, or celebrations of Nazi rule, would cause incredible anguish to Holocaust survivors and their loved ones. Hate speech laws are motivated by the same sorts of considerations. If for example these laws actually do more to promote good consequences than not censoring such speech, then Mill’s argument against censorship would be wrong, and his own commitment to utilitarianism would instead echo contemporary legal forces in justifying censorship.

In any case, cultural forces in the developed world could be described as promoting unintentional censorship of opinions and information. Western intellectual habits currently include declining newspaper readership, as well as a decline in reading generally. We’re more likely to utilize new forms of technology to access information: we use Wikipedia to find information online; we read blogs written by freelance journalists, or persons who might kindly be described as amateur journalists; even news stories promulgated by professional news organizations make use of Twitter posts by celebrities as sources. The confluence of these trends has arguably produced a society which unintentionally limits its own access to information and intelligent opinions. This is a type of censorship we inflict on ourselves by failing to make use of available sources, until, by our lack of interest in the sources, they become unavailable – as is happening to many American newspapers.

As is the case with legal sources of censorship, the free action of these cultural forces could be justified in terms of maximizing good consequences. We no longer enjoy reading, and gain convenience by combining the activities of information gathering and entertainment. Unfortunately though, Mill does not explicitly address unintentional censorship, unless we consider the profession of enfeebled dogma, the thoughtless repetition of old ideas so loudly and frequently that other ideas are drowned, as unintentional censorship.

The Right To Lie

We’ve seen that Mill presents an excellent argument against the justification of censorship; that current legal and social forces in the developed world currently encourage a type of market censorship; and that this censorship might seem to be justifiable on utilitarian grounds. Yet ultimately, censorship is not justifiable, and Mill’s arguments in On Liberty explain why. Mill reminds us that there is something more important and larger at stake than freedom of speech or the offense someone may feel.

Let us first consider laws against Holocaust denial. According to Michael Whine in ‘Expanding Holocaust Denial and Legislation Against It’ in Jewish Political Studies Review #20, Spring 2008, a prominent justification for these laws is that people who deny the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis are political extremists likely to advocate Nazi policies themselves (Whine himself argues that education is a better long-term strategy for coping with political extremism than censorship). Another justification is that speech which denies the existence of the Holocaust is offensive and threatening.

Threatening speech is a special category of speech: it is speech which is likely to result in immediate physical harm to someone. Mill deals with it in Chapter 3 of On Liberty: “No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions,” he writes on p.53, before going on to distinguish between the promulgation of opinions in the unthreatening form of putting up signs or writing for a newspaper (or, we can imagine, posting opinions on one’s own blog), and the promulgation of opinions in settings in which a crowd might be convinced to act with violence. He uses the example of the opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, pointing out that there is no justification for censoring this opinion when it is circulated calmly: however, there is justification for censoring the voicing of the opinion outside the house of a corn merchant if an angry mob has gathered there. That would be threatening speech: we can see how it could easily lead to physical harm to the corn dealer, the corn dealer’s family, and his property.

Yet it is not at all clear that laws prohibiting Holocaust denying speech are justified on the same grounds. Certainly, the same grounds would justify laws against a speech vilifying Holocaust survivors or historians to an angry mob of Neo-Nazis outside the home or office of the people being vilified. Indeed any speech vilifying someone made to an angry mob outside the home or office of the person concerned would count as threatening under Mill’s distinction, and would be justifiably suppressed. It is very important to notice, however, that Mill justifies this suppression of speech on the grounds that it constitutes a harmful action, not on the grounds that it constitutes a harmful opinion – because it’s so closely related to the mob violence that could follow it, not because of the content of the speech per se. Mill is clear to note that the same words can be perfectly legally acceptable if published in newsprint, in a non-threatening situation.

This point is of critical importance. According to Mill, there is no such thing as a harmful opinion: the issue is about how the opinion is expressed, and not about the opinion itself. But the laws against Holocaust denial do not say anything about how the opinions are expressed. If politicians genuinely wanted to prohibit threatening or harmful speech, they would need to make additions to the law concerning the probability of imminent harm. However, even then the law would not be about the opinion expressed, but about the harm being done by it.

Hence the extant laws blanketly prohibiting Holocaust denial cannot be justified on the grounds that it constitutes threatening speech. Similarly, Mill rules out the justification of censorship purely on grounds of offense. He reminds his readers of the case of Socrates. To the concerned leading citizens of Athens, Socrates’ arguments challenging public heroes and so revealing deficiencies in their judgments, was offensive. Mill remarks that Socrates was honestly guilty of his charges of corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety. Both were legally recognized offenses, and Socrates was justly found guilty, just as someone who denies the occurrence of the Holocaust in Germany today would be justly found guilty of violating the anti-Holocaust-denial laws. At issue is whether this legal censorship is morally justifiable. It is often the case that to a majority of citizens in a community certain types of speech would be offensive; and so communities frequently makes laws censoring such opinions. Yet to Mill, the justification of ‘offense’ is inadequate for the suppression of speech. The purveyors of odious opinions such as Holocaust deniers have the right to their odious opinions. Do we find them offensive and false? Of course we do. However, that is not sufficient grounds for the suppression of their speech. If we cannot adequately reply to their odious opinions, then as Mill rightly points out, we lose our own justification for finding these views offensive and false. Our own views will become dogmatic, and we will be unable to explain precisely why we think what we do.

Free-Flowing Thought?

On the face of it, immediate communication through Twitter, blogs and wikis seems to encourage free speech and the free flow of information. However, the trend for using these in place of traditional slower sources of information which require more review and confirmation, amounts to an unintentional censorship of opinions, as argued. Please note that we are not arguing that new forms of communication are either inherently problematic or should be abandoned. However, the ascent of these sources currently entails replacing more reliable sources of information with less reliable sources of information. Sites such as Twitter are grapevines where news is spread without any of the checks for accuracy upheld by serious newspapers and news magazines, and with minimal repercussions for regular mistakes. Thus, the accountability which is part of traditional media is easily sidestepped by individuals posting information online, or accessing such posts. Unintentional censorship comes increasingly into play, as people become more likely to rely upon these sources for information, news, and opinions.

The most significant point here again, as Mill would point out, is about the consequences of this behavior. As we said, in the US, newspapers have been forced to close across the country. This is a form of unintentional censorship, because reliable sources of information are being silenced. Yet the problem is not primarily that less reliable sources of information are more likely to promulgate falsehoods, but that the less reliable sources of information are less likely to engage in valuable public discourse, exposing readers to a range of opinions and well-checked information. New technologies used to spread opinion and information have not yet managed to duplicate the printed format that plied readers with a healthy range of opinions and facts.

The overall point here is that a healthy, flourishing democracy relies upon access to a wide range of opinions and sources of information. Both laws and cultural trends are currently working to silence opinions in a manner which will impede the ability of democracies to properly function. Mill’s point about the necessity of freedom of expression for the pursuit of truth is thus intimately connected to the proper functioning of democracy. Although we may find an opinion offensive, repugnant or vile, silencing that opinion through either laws or cultural forces entails harms so great that the offensive opinions must be allowed to be expressed. Mill is right to object to the silencing of opinions, and his work helps us to see how our modern world is doing harm to the pursuit of truth in ways that we may not be aware.

© Dr Christopher Caldwell & Dr Delilah Caldwell 2009

Chris Caldwell is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy at Virginia State University. Delilah Caldwell is an Instructor for the College of Psychology at Argosy University Online.


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