In the spirit of the John Stuart Mill search-for-truth justification, we support organised peaceful debate rather than censorship; challenging rather than shutting down ideas – though naturally caveated by the non-aggression principle and UK law.


What is the search-for-truth justification?

The concept of free speech can be traced back to John Stuart Mill’s arguments in Chapter II of On Liberty, where he stated that truth could be a casualty of the suppression of free discussion. There are organisations, such as these days, the National Union of Students (NUS) and student unions, who silence ideas, feeling that suppressing what they deem to be falsehoods presumably supports truth. However, John Stuart Mill argued that if the majority silences its opponents, it will never have to defend its belief and over time will forget the arguments for it; hence we feel that we should stand up to, debate ideas, rather than “no platform” speakers.

A culture in which opinions are subject to challenge promotes the development of character traits in individuals that are particularly valuable to a society, including the ability to engage in critical inquiry, a willingness to challenge beliefs held firmly by oneself and others, and the courage to stand up for convictions that are not widely held. Moreover, John Stuart Mill states that often neither party has complete truth, but both has partial truth, and that to enlarge its grasp of the truth the majority must allow the minority to express its partially truthful view.

Some people reckon liberty means they can just do anything they want, which is nonsense, because such would legitimise murder. Despite claims that free speech is absolute, John Stuart Mill placed caveats. He illustrated the limit by saying that one ought to be free to attack corn dealers in the press as starvers of the poor, but that one should not be free to make the same attack orally to an excited mob outside a corn dealer’s house. The angry mob could easily be excited by such words and put someone’s life in danger; an incitement to violence. Negative liberty is about our rights being respected, and thus we need to balance various rights and liberties; such includes in this this case right of life.

Compare this with the crime of inciting racial hatred which involves the use of abusive or insulting words calculated to stir up racially-motivated violence. The risk of harm rather than offence is the rationale of the law receives support from the fact that the law on this matter is part of the Public Order Act 1986.

John Stuart Mill’s position on the limits of free speech is at once simple and complex. It is simple in so far as the avoidance of harm is the only limit he allows, but complex in that there is much controversy as to what should meet such a definition of harm. Locke, John Stuart Mill, Jefferson, Rand, Rothbard, so many key writers on negative liberty, said there is a caveat to freedom, i.e. the non-aggression principle, i.e. not to harm others. Some argue that this could only apply to physical action, such as inciting a crowd to vandalise a property, while suggesting words, such as repeatedly harassing someone, is not violence. While others state that such can cause emotional / mental battering of the physical senses, and that certainly sexual harassment and bullying can cause genuine mental distress.

Independently-thinking individuals advance the search for truth by following their thoughts as far as they can even if doing so yields conclusions that make them, and their fellow citizens, uncomfortable. However, while some of the things said in debates certainly demonstrated an intent to challenge ideas, other times people it would seem just are intentionally and needlessly rude and insensitive for dramatic effect, and thus do not meet John Stuart Mill’s search-for-truth justification. Moreover, such needless confrontation only puts people off the call for free speech.

However, some would say, if you regulate speech, isn’t that a dangerous slippery slope, where governments could control us too much? You could say that about any legislation, and you could even mention that some judges are corrupt or that mistakes happen, but would you say then that no one could ever be charged for murder? The roots of the modern concept of negative liberty go back to habeas corpus where it was established that people would be judged by their peers, by a jury. Rather than arguing for laws not to exist, you perhaps should consider if it would be pragmatic or morally more appropriate for juries to be called in every court case.