Freedom of Speech: Is it always a good thing?

November 17, 2011


On a dreary Monday morning, I rolled out of bed and began my long walk to the community bathroom before class. Every morning, I “take in my surroundings” and glance at resident’s doors, in particular messages left on dry erase boards. While scanning these boards, one caught my eye. This board, which is pictured to the right, had the word SLUT written across it. After my immediate reaction of disgust at the way certain girls treat each other, I thought of John Stuart Mill, an advocate for freedom of expression whom we discussed earlier this semester. John Mill believed that freedom of speech was good for society. Expressing one’s opinion allowed others to either discover that what they believed to be true was actually false, or that it would help solidify one’s opinion to be true. Mill argued that the more we know, the better off we are as a society. Over time, good ideas will become successful, and bad ideas will fail. This sounds like a pretty good idea at first, but then on second thought, should speech be regulated? What happens when freedom of speech harm’s others?

The truth is unregulated speech can cause serious harm. As children, we have always heard the saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” However, words and the things people say can cause serious harm. Effects of this form of bullying can cause depression, suicide, stunted social development, and a need for retaliation. The truth is, when freedom of speech hurts others, its not just an opinion anymore; its a form of hate speech. Individuals who are harmed through hate speech can react in violent ways either towards themselves or others. Victims of these crimes can become depressed and harm themselves, such as Alex Harrison’s suicide that occurred in Cadillac, Michigan  a few years ago. Alex regularly suffered from hate speech, as students would constantly taunt him and accuse him of peeking in girls’ windows. Alex took his own life because of these harmful accusations. Is the ability to have unregulated speech worth the potential consequences?

Freedom of speech, such as words written on dry erase boards, can cause serious harm. Is it every okay to inflict personal harm because it is “for the good of society”? While some forms of freedom of speech cause society to develop as a whole and acknowledge truths, other forms can be detrimental towards individuals. Mill addresses hate speech in On Liberty, which he refers to as harm principle. This principle, Mill claims, is the the only exception that restricts Freedom of Speech. However, when this topic was briefly reviewed in lecture on September 20, 2011, under the topic “Should harmful ideas be suppressed?” it was said that Mill’s theories claim: who decides what is harmful, and that harm itself should be up for debate. Because the topic of personal harm is debated, some forms of hate speech may be considered acceptable. Perhaps, certain forms may be allowed as long as they are not physically detrimental, however, mental harm still occurs. Does the term harm need to be defined? Do you agree or disagree with Mill’s theories related to hate speech? If Mill was still alive today, what do you think he would say about this, would his opinion change at all?



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6 Comments on “Freedom of Speech: Is it always a good thing?”

  1. afadel Says:

    I agree with Mill, to a certain extent. He explains in length why freedom of speech is beneficial towards society, but does not touch on the issues you bring up. We all have certain individual rights outlined in the United States Constitution, freedom of speech being one of them. If I, as an individual, would like my rights to be upheld, the only fundamental obligation I have towards my fellow man, in a political sense, is to refrain from violating their rights.

    For example, I have the right to pursue my happiness. But does that mean I may rob, cheat, or kill if that involved realizing my happiness? Of course not. The same can be said about other rights, like the right to free speech. I may say whatever I want, so long as I do not cause harm to others, or impose on their individual rights. Hate speech is a form a violence, and should be treated as such. Since the fundamental role of our government is to protect us, they have every right to step in when one person oversteps his/her boundaries by harming another through hate speech.

  2. srbarron Says:

    We voted in lecture that when it comes to hate speech, many people are offended and believe that’s where the line of freedom of speech should end. As mentioned, “sticks and stones can break my bones,” but words too can deeply hurt one’s emotions. It all depends on who is saying the words and the context of the conversation. In the above example of the white board, most likely a friend jokingly wrote the derogatory name. However, although she might have been kidding, it does give other’s the idea that the girl may be a slut and then they will judge her. If other people are influenced by this board now, a negative chain of effects can result. This is when the problem of unlimited freedom of speech can be seen. It’s one thing to jokingly say something to your friend, but it’s another to write it and share with others a comment that they can pass on. The line should be drawn before others are convinced for this false statement.

    In the time of Mill, before technology, thoughts didn’t travel as quickly as they do today. Even with the picture above, we now may think that Allie is a slut, without knowing who she even is because things are posted on the internet and shared. Mill’s belief of freedom of speech holds true in expressing positive thoughts, but there needs to be a point where we learn the difference between right and wrong speech.

  3. sarahspath23 Says:

    I think Mill wrote in a very different time and although a lot of his reasons for freedom of speech still hold, there are many things to take into consideration in today’s society. I completely agree with Mill that freedom of speech is beneficial when trying to find the truth. There is definitely something to be said for listening to other people’s opinions, especially if they oppose your own. I can see that this is beneficial to society because people tend to have a strong belief and think they are right. Logically, this cannot be so because not everyone can be right and it is therefore necessary to have freedom of speech in order to come to a better understanding.

    However, the scenario presented in this post is slightly different. This is a name with a negative connotation directed at somebody. Is it really necessary for girls to write/call each other these names to find the truth about Allie? I don’t think so and I do not think that this is a situation in which Mill would agree that freedom of speech applies. I personally don’t need to know if Allie is actually a slut because it is not important to me in my life. I think that most people would feel this way as well. I feel that Mill writes more about situations related to issues within society, not directly about a specific person. We are all going to have different opinions on people because of our own background and way of seeing the world, and it would be difficult and unnecessary to come to a consensus about what kind of person Allie or anyone is. How is knowing what kind of person Allie is going to better society’s knowledge in any meaningful way? I am sure there is some good that could come out of spending time to find this out, but in the overall scheme of things, I don’t think society would improve significantly through this knowledge.

    Where this situation does get tricky is that we, as Americans, do have the right to freedom of speech. We have the right to say if we don’t like someone or what we think about them. However, Mill also might not have thought of freedom of speech when it comes to kids. Kids are especially sensitive to name calling or other such bullying because they are young and impressionable. Calling someone a name is hurtful especially to kids because they do not know who they are yet and they do not have a core group of friends to lean on. Childhood and schools in general have become filled with competition. This is competition for grades, competition in sports, and competition to be the most popular. All many kids care about is having friends and it happens that some kids feel that making fun of other, maybe less social, kids will put them on top of the social pyramid. This kind of dynamic that exists today is something that Mill might not have explicitly thought of when writing about free speech.

    I think that freedom of speech cannot be a generalized rule but more of a situation by situation decision. In this situation, I agree that the word ‘slut’ was probably written by one of Allie’s friends in a joking manner. If this is the case, then I don’t see a huge problem with allowing these girls the freedom of speech. Although other people will see it and might think differently about Allie, I think that it is up to us to judge people based on what we actually know. Many girls do call each other ‘sluts’ but they do not have negative attitude behind it. It is kind of what our modern language has become, and I think that many people who did see this door probably knew that it was just part of how the girls interacted with each other. In this case, ‘slut’ is not really harming anyone.

    However, what if the word ‘slut’ was written as a hurtful comment towards someone? In this case, I think that freedom of speech should not apply. It is the meaning behind it that makes the difference. In this case, the freedom of speech could really hurt Allie’s feelings. As described in the post, name calling does make kids feel depressed and upset. This does not always lead to such awful consequences as suicide, but it does sometimes. So it is incredibly important to realize that ‘just words’ can eventually lead to physical harm. Even if it doesn’t, there is still harm done to someone mentally and emotionally that could affect them for the rest of their lives.

    I don’t know what Mill would think because this situation is so modern, but I feel that if he were here and saw the consequences of such words, he would not think that the freedom of speech should apply. As stated, Mill did recognize the limits of freedom of speech with the harm principle. I believe that he would extend this principle to include emotional and mental distress, especially when it comes to kids. I would agree with this conclusion and I also might add something about a time and place for freedom of speech. If ‘slut’ was written as a joke, I feel that it is somewhat appropriate because it is in a college dorm where college girls, who might understand the language, live. But it would not be appropriate to say in front of a young child or in the middle of class. As our social environment is changing so quickly, we should remember that although freedom of speech is important, the consequences of expressing it could harm others.

  4. riommack Says:

    While Mill notes the exceptions to freedom of expression, so does the U.S. law. There are MANY clauses part of the first amendment to protect people. The list includes incidents of defamation, sedition, obscenity, incitement to crime, causing panic, and the list goes on. So do we actually have freedom of expression? I believe we do, but the government and law makers have made sure to cover all loopholes that may injure someone mentally or physically. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom of slander. Would the amendment better be called Freedom of Speech…in moderation? While a lot of the exceptions seem like common sense to me, for those that it does not, what are their thoughts on this amendment? Is it simply a mask for actually restricting our rights? Info from :

  5. jgurwitch Says:

    There is such a wide range of which situations can be determined as harmful that it is really hard to pin point a definition for it. Unfortunately there are many situations where harmful things are said but it cannot all be classified as one category. I think that Mill would have different opinions today than he would when he wrote about freedom of speech because in my personal opinion times have changed. The way I see it is that the women centuries ago were considered to be a lot more “pure” and submissive which tends to create less controversy in what was done and said. I also believe that there was far less knowledge of offensive and derogatory things that could be said rather than today. Today anyone and everyone can be called a slut or whore, whether it is considered an insult or friendly. With that being said it is very hard to truly claim when it is being friendly or not. I do not necessarily agree with the extent of the freedom of speech used today but that is because anything can be said and it can be perceived as a hurtful comment or as a joke. There are too many instances when these situations arise and therefore it makes it really hard to say if it is a harmful statement or not.
    Furthermore, I do not necessarily lean one way or another to Mill’s theories related to hate speech. It makes sense to say that what most people think is harmful should be considered harmful, but that is not always the case. There are many times when some people who are gay do not take offense to slurs that might be a slight joke but some people might in fact take it very personally. There are many words and phrases that are considered offensive in society, and these are things that should not be ignored. It seems quite easy to understand which words or actions should not be used and it seems foolish to believe that people still use those types of things even though they most likely know what is truly accepted in society or not.
    If Allie’s friend wrote this as a joke than she would not take offense to this, but a girl who walks by and has been called a slut before could really feel emotionally upset upon seeing this. A lot of people are not careful with what they do and the effect can be a lot greater on someone else who does not in fact relate to Allie or this potential joke. It is bigger than just the person it is associated with. It is a part of all of the people who have possibly been called a slut and truly taken offense to the word. The modern times are different then when Mill wrote his Freedom of Speech and it would be very interesting to see if he would change his opinion about a situation such as this one.

  6. acicurel Says:

    I too have seen situations similar to this and even been victim too it, although not in such an insulting manner. What could be perceived as a derogatory remark against a member of the LGBT community was left on my white board, even though I am not a member of this community (probably left by someone merely making a practical joke). What intrigues me about the situation is the responsibility I felt for the insulting remarks that were left on my white board, even though I did not write them. Even though I did not write the remarks, I felt partially responsible that my white board had been used to possibly cause emotional harm to someone else.

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