Freedom of Speech Essay

Hate Speech or Free Speech
Speech has been a very important tool for mankind. It has allowed man to communicate with each other to share knowledge, settle disputes and to develop as a community. However throughout history, there have been times where speech has been misused and subsequently caused harm. As a result, rules had to be placed over what is appropriate to be said and what is not. Thus a few questions arise: Does free speech really exist? How free are people to say what they want to say? What are the restrictions of our free speech? How are these restrictions measured?

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In John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty he expressed his strong belief on the importance of individual liberty and free speech. However, to bring the issue of free speech into modern terms, Mill’s beliefs are challenged on TVO’s The Agenda. Three Osgoode Hall law students are protesting against Mark Steyn’s views on Muslim demographics as well as the material that MacLean’s is publishing. With this said, free speech should exist as an integral part of modern society, but there must be limits that pertain to how far freedom of speech can be pushed before it is harmful to someone else.

Free Speech can be defined as being able to express and opinion, thought or belief without any restrictions. Mill believes that freedom of speech is important for growth as it allows for a diversity of opinion and thought. Although Mill does agree that not all opinions and thoughts are necessarily correct, there is chance that some of them might be correct. Therefore it is wrong to omit any idea, as in doing so might possibly omit a truth. Along with this, if a person does have a “correct” opinion, they will be able to improve their understanding of the situation if they hear the opposing opinion.

In a similar case, if a group of people only knew bits of the truth, they can benefit from sharing as a more complete truth may be constructed. This is because people learn through having their ideas challenged. Mill states “Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is so far doing a public service. We should be grateful to him for attacking most unsparingly our most cherished opinions.” (Mill, 15) Because Mill suggested that everyone opinion should be voiced in order for anyone to improve on their own ideas, there should absolutely be no limitations placed on speech, regardless of immorality.

Mill states “If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were 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.” (Mill, 14) Because of his strong defense of free speech, Mill believed that there should be a government system that surrounds this concept. Government power should only be used only to prevent any harm to any member of society. However, there should be restrictions placed for this power as it may be misused. Mill states “But the strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct, is that when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly, and in the wrong place.” (Mill, 70)

In Mill’s ideal society, he strongly promoted individuality among members of society. People should be allowed to think what they want, do what they want, and collaborate with others as long as any of these activities do not bring harm to anyone else. To display how this model works: I am allowed to confront my friend on his reckless driving. I am not allowed to force my friend to change his driving habits, but I am allowed to let my friend know about my opinion of his driving habits. I am also allowed to share said opinions with others. As long as the situation is confronted in a civilized manner my friend and I are not under any trouble. Mill states “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.” (Mill, 46)

However, the question of what “harm” is still exists. On what basis is this “harm” judged by? In turn, we are still left with no clear limits of free speech. Mill addressed this with an analogy “An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.” (Mill, 46) In short, people are allowed to publish and write about the claims of the corn dealer starving the poor; what they are not allowed to do is start a riot based on these claims. If the approach in expressing an opinion places the targeted individual’s rights or well being in danger, then it should be limited.

There is still vagueness with what is considered harm and what is not considered harm, as well as the circumstances in which government should be allowed exercise their power to prevent said harm. Regardless of the situation however, the government should not always be relied upon to settle disputes. Mill believed that government tended to hinder individualism, which in turn, is detrimental towards free speech. Too much government control will restrain societal growth. Mill states “A state which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes – will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished.” (Mill, 97)

Ultimately for Mill, he believes that everyone should have the right to grow to their own potential with the government existing only to protect people from harm. Everyone is free to do whatever he or she chooses to do, even if his or her choices are imprudent. The overall goal is to allow mankind to flourish and be the best possible version of themselves.

To bring the issue of free speech into modern terms, three law students from Osgoode Hall filed a human rights complaint against Maclean’s Magazine for publishing 22 articles over a period of two years that were “Islamophobic”, and what was considered to them as “hate speech”. The students claimed to have approached Maclean’s Magazine and have requested them to publish a response to the aforementioned articles. In response Maclean’s told them that they would go bankrupt than publish these articles, which sparked the complaints.

The students also criticized the work of Mark Steyn, which was featured in some of the “Islamaphobic” articles that Maclean’s published. Steyn defends himself by saying the issue is not with discrimination but with free speech. Mill would agree with Steyn as even though the claims made by Steyn may be uncivil or discriminatory, it has not and will not inflict any harm upon anyone. As a result there should be no issue to discuss in the first place, and the content of the article should be left alone. However, Mill would agree that having a counterview of the article should be published.

Having both sides present their views on Islamic demographics may uncover a new truth that wasn’t evident before. There is a fine line between what is considered hate speech and what isn’t. Regardless, if the opinion ends up being harmful to someone, the government should be allowed to intervene and stop such act. It is agreeable the articles of Maclean’s and Steyn should be published for the sake of free speech. It is also agreeable that what is presented by both parties can’t be labeled as “hate speech”. However, it is important to note that a problem with civility arises. Morality should be considered when an opinion is expressed.

In Mill’s ideal where anyone is allowed to voice any opinion regardless of morality, society and culture will slowly decay. The growing lack of respect may lead into actual hate speech and subsequently hate crime. An example of this in history is the holocaust. Hitler expressed strong hate and violence towards the Jewish peoples, which eventually became a reality. To address Mill’s point on individualism and freedom to express any thought, it cannot be ensured that everyone has an equal voice. Depending on the venue or medium in which debate and discussions are carried out (the internet, newspaper, books, conferences) not everyone has an equal chance to participate may it be because of social class, gender, race etc.

Along with this problem, the owners of the aforementioned venues and mediums have total control. What prevents them from creating a biased situation and to manipulate how the debate is carried out? How can social progress occur for mankind if not everyone is equally represented? In this respect, Mill fails to account for the minorities of society. Mill also believes that the role of government should be downplayed to allow for individualism to prosper. There is no distinguishing feature of hate speech that makes it hate speech and Mill only provides a vague idea of what is “harm”. The first problem arises with the limited amount of power that the government should exercise. To allow for most disputes to be settled by the individuals themselves is an unrealistic solution.

If government regulation is not strong enough, the majority would be able to bully the minority more easily. The second problem is in the system in which how free speech is governed. Because the definition of hate speech and Mill’s definition of “harm” are both so vague, how can there be a standard as to how violators are to be punished? The severity of the cases can vary greatly so it will be very time consuming for the government to address each case individually. In conclusion it can be said that both the Osgoode students and Steyn were both right and wrong. Steyn was correct in saying that to attack the Maclean’s article would be to attack free speech itself.

The Osgoode students were correct in saying that the material published was uncivil and that counterview should be presented by Maclean’s. Undoubtedly, debates are important for our growth, and free speech should exist to fuel healthy debates. However, civility should also be taken into account when determining the limits of free speech. If we find a balance of civility and free speech, then we will be able to progress towards our potential.

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