Mill’s Theory of Free Speech

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In a period of time where different issues emerge every day, the idea of free speech is significant. The first amendment is a constitutional law that explains the details of free speech, but due to the complexity of the idea, free speech still creates many opinions. This essay offers many opinions about the issue of free speech in regard to Mill’s theory and connects these different opinions with a free speech incident at the University of California, Berkeley. In this essay, I will start by providing facts about the specific case at UC-Berkeley.

Next, I will be discussing Mill’s theory and then connecting it to the specific case. Then, I will offer the main theses from one philosophy journal article and one public policy journal article and tie them into to Mill’s theory. Lastly, I will explain whether the author of the philosophy article will agree with Mill’s verdict in regard to the free speech incident and then provide my own thoughts about the case. In this essay, Mill’s theory of free speech illustrates its superiority of argument compared to other’s opinions through its thoroughness.

In April 2017, two student-led conservative groups filed a civil rights lawsuit against the University of California, Berkeley due to the university canceling multiple conservative speakers. Specifically, one speaker was the political commentator, Ann Coulter. The two conservative groups along with Ann Coulter felt as if the student’s free speech rights were being restricted, which propelled the lawsuit to be filed. The case began when two conservative groups at UC Berkeley, the Berkeley College Republicans, and the Young America’s Foundation, wanted to use their platform of free speech to educate others at the university.

The Berkeley College Republicans invited Ann Coulter to speak, while the Young America’s Foundation helped organize and finance the event. A few days later, Berkeley officials called off the event due to security reasons provoking some opposing opinions from students at the university along with many others. The university then rethought the decision and offered an alternative date for Coulter, but Coulter demanded that she speak on the original date. Coulter expressed her unhappy disposition through Twitter where she ordered that she receive an appropriate and safe venue for her visit on the original date.

The alternative date that was offered by the Berkeley officials was on the first week of May, which is also known as Dead Week when no classes are held, which led to members of the conservative groups to believe that the university was restricting their rights of free speech on the campus. The conservative groups also felt that one of the reasons the university canceled the event was due to the fact that it was a conservative speaker offering another reason for why the lawsuit was filed.

The lawsuit was later dismissed in October by the federal judge, Maxine Chesney, but she gave the plaintiffs a month to file a new complaint. Chesney issued the second chance to the groups as she wanted to know whether a new events policy for the university would satisfy some of the groups’ demands and also about how the university authorized liberal speech. While the decision is still pending, the new case has sparked national debates as many universities have changed their free speech policies.

In his work entitled, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill begins his defense of free speech by revealing the struggle between authority and liberty. Mills says that in the past, this struggle was between subjects and the government as the subjects represented liberty and the government represented authority. This struggle between authority and liberty, which dates back to the sixteenth century, leads to this issue of free speech for people that represent liberty. Specifically, in chapter one of On Liberty, Mill argues that over time individuals developed and wanted their leaders to reflect their interests and desires. It was assumed that leaders did not need any limitations as they were accountable to the people and it was not logical for the people to tyrannize themselves.

However, when the democratic republic of the United States was established, it was realized that people don’t rule themselves. Rather, the people with power rule over the people without power. This power struggle creates an imbalance between the majority and the minority, where the majority has power over the minority through public opinion. Mill writes that the power of public opinion limits individuality more so than any law; consequently, Mill also writes that there must be protection for people against the prevailing public opinions so that society can progress through individuality. This is where Mill’s theory in regard to the defense of free speech comes in. (Mill, 5-15)

In chapter two of On Liberty, Mill defends his theory of free speech by offering three main arguments. Mill emphasizes that given our fallibility, we increase the probability of discovering the truth by not silencing the opinions of others. As described in the text, the act of silencing one’s opinion robs humanity whether the opinion is right or wrong. If the opinion is right, one loses the opportunity to replace error for truth by silencing the other’s opinion; conversely, if the opinion is wrong, one loses the great benefit of a clearer truth.

Next, Mill focuses on the importance of truth to defend his theory of free speech where he says even true beliefs can benefit the believers by having to defend their beliefs. In this argument, Mill explains that it is beneficial for everyone if true beliefs are defended by believers. If an opinion stands up to refutation, it may be true; however, our opinion must be contested or contradicted if we desire to have any assurance of our opinion being right. Lastly, Mill argues that the full truth about an issue may be contained in part in two or more theories highlighting the importance of free speech regardless of the opinion. These three arguments are the core of Mill’s theory in regard to his defense of free speech as he centralizes the underlying principle of free speech to be about discovering the truth. (Mill, 19-51)

In chapter three of On Liberty, Mill focuses on individuality in society in regard to well-being. While Mill believes in autonomy, he only believes it to an extent as he says that the actions of one individual should not endanger others. And within this concept of autonomy, Mill asserts individuality should be expressed through an individual’s desires and motives as they produce change for either the good or the bad. This idea connects with one of Mill’s main arguments in this chapter where he offers that one’s individuality should interfere with another through teaching and not by harm. Mills gives us an example of the Calvinistic theory, which held the belief of the sovereignty of God in all areas of life meaning that individuality is not supported as it deters from God’s course.

Mill disagrees with this theory and thinks that this is a restrictive way of living as individuality is not being expressed. Mill brings back this idea of tyranny in a society where he definitively states that any society that suppresses individuality is tyrannical. Next, Mill discusses the significance of original thought and individual spontaneity in society. Original thought leads to a discovery of new truths as the intelligent individuals that hold original thought can communicate to others and offer their ideas. Individual spontaneity is similar to original thought in that it leads to the discovery of new truths, but the reasoning for its importance is that it escapes from the societal status quo allowing others to explore new ideas. (Mill, 56-64)

In the incident at UC-Berkeley where the university canceled Ann Coulter’s visit due to security reasons, the act of violation to the rights of free speech was presented in the lawsuit as the conservative speakers believed that the university did not want Coulter to speak. While security may be an issue at smaller institutions, it is safe to assume that it is not an issue at UC-Berkeley, which introduces the issue of restricting free speech on college campuses. As a believer and scholar of free speech, I’m sure Mill would’ve loved to comment on this issue.

I believe that Mill would have difficulty in deciding the appropriate response, but in the end, he would believe that Coulter deserves the right to speak. I say that Mill may have difficulty in deciding whether or not Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at UC-Berkeley due to his various arguments that are mainly presented in chapters two and three in On Liberty. In chapter two, Mill gives us three main arguments that all centralize around discovering truth, but in these arguments, he explains that the speaker’s aim must be to find truth.

Although we may think that we know everything and can decide issues for everyone, we cannot due to our fallibility. And while the truth may seem apparent to some, that doesn’t mean that it is apparent to all. Mill also says in this chapter that even true beliefs can benefit the believers by having to defend their beliefs and offer a dialogue. In regard to the specific free speech incident, Mill would say that Coulter does not offer dialogue to defend her beliefs, but rather she expresses her message without reasoning, exemplifying that Coulter doesn’t care about the truth. According to the arguments in chapter two, Mill would not give Coulter the right to speak at UC-Berkeley as she has no desire to discover the truth, but his arguments in chapter three would offer a different perspective. In chapter three of On Liberty, Mill expresses the idea of individuality with respect to well-being, illustrating that one must value individuality to be happy.

Both in chapter three of On Liberty and in chapter two of Utilitarianism, which are two works written by Mill, he narrows the argument down to how one must utilize individuality and original thought to obtain happiness. Mill believes that not all highly autonomous individuals are bound to be happy, but rather that autonomous thought and expression are necessary elements to enjoy the “higher pleasures” as he discusses in chapter two of Utilitarianism. This argument is what I believe will change his opinion on whether or not Coulter should be allowed to speak at UC-Berkeley. Mill would conclusively say that she should be allowed to speak at the university because of her individuality and her autonomous thought as he conveyed in chapter three of On Liberty and in chapter two of Utilitarianism. (Mill, 56-64) (Mill, 4-17)

Another defense of free speech is offered by Gautam Bhatia in his public policy journal article entitled, Discursive Democracy and the Limits of Free Speech. Bhatia aims to discuss free speech and its limitations in a discursive democracy by analyzing the controversy regarding the regulation of pornography. In his first argument, Bhatia provides insight into free speech through the laws of the constitution in a discursive government. Bhatia explains that a discursive democracy values authentic deliberation rather than just mere voting to settle issues, which activates the idea of free speech. In a discursive democracy, free speech is highly appreciated and defended as it encourages disputes and arguments which furthers the progression of the society.

In Bhatia’s second argument, he applies the structure of a discursive democracy to examine the issue of pornography, a constitutional controversy. He reveals that pornography serves as a waste of free speech as it does not contribute to the advancement of society through argumentation. In his third argument, Bhatia analyzes how discursive democracy would cope with social inequalities, specifically power inequalities. He explains that discursive democracy would value everyone equally, therefore limiting the issues of inequalities of power. Bhatia’s argument of free speech in a discursive democracy sounds familiar to Mill’s theory as they both believe in the idea of argumentation to find truth. (Bhatia, 1-15)

Another defense of free speech by Immanuel Kant is analyzed by Helga Varden in her philosophy journal article entitled, A Kantian Conception of Free Speech. In her work, Varden offers a closer analysis to Kant’s defense of free speech where she focuses on three themes: right versus virtue, the state as a public authority, and the effect of private and public law. In her first argument where she discusses right versus virtue, Varden starts off by explaining the definition of public right and private right. Rightful public speech is protected by various public law measures such as the first amendment, while rightful private speech is protected by the opinions of others, which can be undefined.

The interpretation of “right” for Kant means that it’s sole concern is for people’s actions in time or also known as “external use of choice” as he calls it. Kant interprets “virtue” as the internal use of choice meaning that it’s based on morality rather than objective law. Varden agrees with Kant as he believes that rightful speech is more valued than speech that is based on virtue due to the objectivity that rightful speech offers. In her second examination of Kant’s defense of free speech, Varden disagrees with Kant in regard to his belief that everyone should be allowed to communicate regardless of hateful or untruthful speech. Varden argues that public officials must use their official use of speech to prevent seditious speech meaning that they must use their speech to protect the government as they are a public authority.

Lastly, Varden presents the idea of public and private law and its effect on the certain distinctions of free speech such as hate speech, harassment, blackmail, etc. She agrees with Kant and believes that all public free speech issues should be handled by public law, while private free speech issues can either be handled by public or private law. (Varden, 39-55)

In regard to both viewpoints of free speech from Mill and Varden, they both offer defenses for the right of freedom of speech, but in different ways. Mill’s main belief is that if one’s speech is aiming for the truth and offers a certain level of individuality and spontaneity then that person should be allowed to speak; conversely, Varden argues that through Kant she believes in rightful speech rather than speech based in virtue, but she takes it one step further and disagrees with Kant through her belief that public authorities must use speech to protect the government regardless of the message.

I believe that Varden’s argument differs from Mill’s as she believes that regardless of the speaker’s aim for truth and their expression of individuality, they should not be allowed to speak if their speech is seditious towards the government in any way. Earlier in this essay, I applied Mill’s theory to the free speech incident at UC-Berkeley where I discussed that while Mill may have some difficulty in deciding to let Ann Coulter speaker, he eventually would due to her individuality of speech. I think that Varden would also let Coulter speak, but for different reasons than Mill.

UC-Berkeley can be represented as a public authority as the institution is a public university. The school operates through funding from the state government officially establishing it as a public authority in the viewpoint of Varden. As a public authority, Varden believes that they must operate through rightful speech that prevents seditious speech, particularly against the government. Although Coulter may have some conflicting opinions about issues in our nation, she does not express harm or rebellion toward our government in any way. So as a public authority, Varden would believe that UC-Berkeley should allow Coulter to speak as she does not violate the free speech principles of a public authority.

As a current college student, this specific incident at UC-Berkeley provoked many thoughts. While I generally agree with Mill and Varden in regard to their theories of supporting speech as long as it aims for truth and does not disgrace the government, I also think that Coulter is a unique speaker in that she doesn’t seek the truth. I believe that Coulter attempts to provoke others with her speech rather than trying to discover truth or solve a solution. In my argument, I mainly lean towards Mill’s theory as I believe in aiming for truth as a requirement for a speaker, which I why I would not agree with Varden nor Mill to support Ann Coulter to speak at UC-Berkeley.

In this essay, I provided evidence for how Mill’s defense of free speech serves as the model of free speech theories. Through the arguments from Bhatia, Varden, and Mill, the levels of free speech are displayed, but through communication and different viewpoints free speech will become a more knowledgeable subject.

Cite this paper

Mill’s Theory of Free Speech. (2021, Nov 11). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/mills-theory-of-free-speech/

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