Mill’s Harm Principle of Free Speech

I am seeing a lot of references to John Stuart Mill in recent news. Blair Lindsay, for example, writes in the Christian Science Monitor:

As 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill explained, “bad speech” should be met with more speech, not more speech regulations.

Bad speech is so vague as to be meaningless in Lindsay’s opinion piece. That is like saying bad food should not be regulated — are we talking about an inexperienced cook or a case of salmonella poison? My guess is we can agree to limit poison from the dinner table. More food is not a remedy for being poisoned.

It prompted me to pull out my old philosophy readers and peruse through Mill’s work called “On Liberty”. In chapter one he states his harm principle:

…the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

More to the point of the current debate, Mill clarifies in chapter three that by harm he means the “instigation to some mischievous act” should be regulated.

No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act. An opinion…may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to to an excited mob assembled…or when handed out among the same mob…

Mill is considered a very liberal advocate of free speech but even he puts forward a clear role for speech limits and regulation.

I think we can all agree that bad speech should be met with more speech (like good ideas replacing bad ones). That is easy.

I disagree with the Christian Science Monitor opinion piece because I find it misleading to imply that Mill is against regulation of speech. Mill is cautious of regulation but offers readers a principle under which it justified.

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