Free speech: some conditions apply Akademia with Adam


The past year has seen colleges and universities throughout North America embroiled in debate regarding the matter of free speech. The issue of who and what defines free speech has remained unsettled, and clashes between the fracticosu supporters of various sides has intensified. These issues have been further escalated by political situation in the US, which has driven many partisans into more dramatic positions than occupied in the past. Despite the increase in “dialogue” (even with quotations this is a stretch) there seems to be no concrete explanation of what qualifies as free speech and what can be justifiably censured.  There exists, of course, a large body of written legal documentation from throughout the world which tackles the question of free speech implicitly. For the purpose of this article we will be neatly sidestepping such text and will instead be examining the issue from a normative perspective.

There are of course those who argue that there should be no limits on free speech, but this is a difficult position to argue without a deeper exploration of why said freedom is valuable (a discussion we don’t have time for today). Rather, matters of free speech are often assessed using the harm principle. The principal runs as follows: if by engaging in a form of free speech we cause undue or unwarranted harm to others, then such speech should be restricted. The problem here is obviously deciding what constitutes harm and when it is undue or unwarranted.

If my speech offends someone can it be called harmful? In a sense it could be argued that by offending someone I am causing harm to them, but when we consider the implications of this rule we see that using offense as a standard of harm would invalidate nearly any statement. John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher, gave an example to illustrate his view of the harm principle: he asks us to envision an individual, upset with the price of a certain good, creating pamphlets and disseminating them to the public. This, he says, is an acceptable form of free speech. If, however, the individual were to distribute these pamphlets directly outside the house of a merchant responsible for the price of goods thus inciting the public to damage the merchant’s house or person, this would be unacceptable and violate the harm principle.

Of course this example has many of the same problems we saw above. It does not spell out for us what exactly constitutes harm though it does give us an example to work from. What Mill was probably trying to convey is that speech intended to cause tangible damage to another person or group of people should be restricted. But even if we agree with this (and many would not), it is hard to determine what tangible harm is and when it can be justified.  It is easy to tell people that they are being hateful with their words and that they are causing real damage to others, but the response would doubtless be that this is simply our opinion. Or perhaps we would be told that, yes they are causing harm to others, but the nature of this other group’s actions or behaviour warrants such a response for the public good.

Just like many other philosophical issues, free speech is a matter wherein subjectivity makes it difficult to reach a definitive conclusion. The standard for what, if any, restrictions should be placed on free speech is difficult to meld into a single philosophical standard let alone a piece of actual policy. The current legalist approach, acting on a case by case basis, seems to be the most effective method currently possible. A compromise may be to enact national or regional standards decided through elected governments which, while still not ideal, would allow for higher levels of consistency in line with regional standards and norms.