Free Speech and the Harm Principle

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FreeSpeech and the Harm Principle


Thefreedom of speech is usually guaranteed in the law (including theconstitution), but its exercise may be abused and cause harm toothers. Stuart Mill held that only those actions that might causeharm to others should be prevented, which implies that Mill did notpropose for prevention of actions that might harm an individualtaking them. Mill argued that people should be given the tight rightto liberty, but to an extent that such liberty is not used to harmother people. Democratic governments fail to foster liberty becausethey are governed by decisions of the majority who suppress theopinions of the minority. Strengths of Mill’s principle of harminclude the fact that it emphasizes on the limitation of freedom onlywhen it is used to harm others. The social media is a platform thatallows people to exercise their freedom, but it limits the capacityof law to prevent harm caused to others. The stakeholder should focuson imparting non-enforceable values and establish a sensible society.

Keywords: Principle of harm, liberty, social media, free speech.

FreeSpeech and the Harm Principle

Thefreedom of speech is among the most controversial topics that havebeen debated for centuries without an agreeable conclusion beingreached. This is because one camp argues that people should havetotal freedom to express themselves without being limited in any way,while the other camp holds that unlimited freedom of expression canbe abused or be used to harm other people (Hugelier, 2011). Debateson whether the freedom of expression should be controlled stems fromthe interpretation of the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration ofHuman Rights that was formulated by the United Nations. The articleholds that all people have the right to give and receive opinions andexpress themselves, impart information as well as ideas through anytype of media without being interfered with (Sturges, 2008). Whilethe proponents of the idea of unlimited freedom believe thatunlimited expression creates a platform that leads to the developmentof the society, other scholars (such as Stuart Mills) hold that theliberty of discussion and though should be guaranteed to an extentthat it does not harm other people. This notion is contained in theprinciple of harm that was advanced by Stuart Mills. Although the useof social media has reduced the capacity of the current laws toreduce the use of the freedom of speech to harm other people,technological advances have not rendered Mill’s principle of harmobsolete in its entirety.

Mill’sprinciple of harm states that people should be allowed to do whateverthey wish to as long as they do not harm other people. In otherwords, Mill holds that the government should keep off people’saffairs if their actions are harmless to others and limit libertythat is likely to be used to harm others. The application of Mill’sprinciple in the modern world where information is sharedelectronically, and without the control of the government has beenquestioned. For example, it would be impossible for any government toregulate the content posted by over 1.7 billion users of social media(eMarketer Inc, 2015) and more than 850 million active users ofFacebook alone (Bullas, 2015). Much harm has been caused through thesocial media, which has become an uncontrollable source ofinformation. For example, the Arab springs that affected manycountries (including Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia) were associated withuncontrollable sharing of ideologies that incited the youths toengage in violence against the government (Taki &amp Coretti, 2013).This confirms that the harm caused by the social media cannot beregulated by the law, which creates the need for the establishment ofa sensible society that will apply non-enforceable norms and valuesto assess the potential impact of the content before posting it onthe social media. The present research will focus on Mill’sprinciple of harm and its application in controlling harm associatedwith the freedom of speech that is exercised through the socialmedia.


Principleof harm

Millpresented one of the most popular defenses of the right to thefreedom of speech, but still advocated for protection of other peoplefrom harm that could be caused by the abuse of the right to freespeech. The principle of harm is founded on the argument that it isonly those actions that can possibly be prevented can cause harm(Nowaczyk, 2015). This implies that a society that respects theprinciple of harm cannot be able to stop people from engaging inactions that will only harm them, and have no impact on other people.Mill holds that members of any civilized society can only use theirpower to prevent harm that is likely to be caused to other members ofthe society (Mill, 1859). Mill implies that the freedom of speechshould be guaranteed to an extent that it does not harm other people.

Basicideas of Mill’s principle of harm

Mill’sprinciple of harm is based on three key ideas. Mill’s principle ofharm is derived from the concept of utility. The concept of utilityallows people to only engage in activities that are likely to resultin maximum happiness to others. Although some critics tend to arguethat Mill trivialized the theory of utilitarianism, Mill stated,“everybody should be required to act as he, and those with whom hesympathizes, would like them to act” (10). Therefore, Mill requirespeople to consider the impact of their speech on the happiness or thewell-being of others, even if the exercise of the right to freespeech does not necessarily cause harm to them.

Secondly,Mill differentiates between harm and offense by indicating thatoffenses are hurt the feelings. However, offenses do not harm thefeelings of all people, which mean that they are not universal. Harm,on the other hand, set back the interests and injure the rights ofother people (Mill, 1859). Therefore, Mill’s principle focuses onthe types of freedom or liberty that will potentially limit theability of other people to exercise their rights.

Thethird idea is that it is quite difficult for words or actions by toaffect an individual only, and without affecting other people. Millstates, “No person is entirely isolated, therefore, it isimpossible to do anything seriously hurtful to himself without themischief reaching at least to his near connections” (74). Sinceexercising the right to liberty will definitely affect other people,it is important to put some limit to that freedom if the effect islikely to be hurtful in nature.

Importanceof freedom and the need to control the liberty

Accordingto Mill, liberty is a broad concept that encompasses five keyelements. The first element is the inward domain that determinesone’s consciousness. The inward domain of human liberty is expectedto help people assess their thoughts and actions in order todetermine their impact on them and on others (Mill, 1859). The secondelement is the liberty of feelings and thought. Each person should begiven the freedom to feel and think in their way without beinglimited to so as long as their feelings and thought do not harm otherpeople. The third element is the liberty of publishing opinion andexpressing one’s feelings and thoughts. Besides having the freedomto think and feel, human beings should be given the freedom toexpress thoughts and opinion publicly as long their expression willnot hurt others. The fourth element of human liberty is the freedomof taste and pursuit, which means that all people should have theright to frame plans for their lives in a manner that suits theircharacter (Mill, 1859). The last element is the liberty to joincollective groups, including religious organizations. Apart fromhaving the freedom to join the groups (such as churches) of interest,people should have the right to criticize them and give theiropinions regarding those groups. A combination of these elements ofleads an autonomic view of life, where all people have the right andthe freedom to think, feel, express, and act in manners that theythink are appropriate.

Roleof counter-arguments

Thefact that everyone has the liberty does not mean that one’sexercise of liberty should limit chances for others to exercise theirown. Mill emphasizes on the fact that one’s opinions are notuniversal, which means that other people may disagree with them andraise counter-opinions (Mill, 1859). It is at this level when Millcriticizes democratic governments in which the majority always hastheir way. Mill claims that the majority lacks absolute certainty andauthority, which implies that the opinion of the minority could bethe right one after all. Giving everyone (including the minority) theright to think and speak creates an opportunity for a livelierimpression as well as expression of the truth and perception.Therefore, silencing either the minority or the majority leads tomore serious harm than giving them the liberty to engage in healthydiscussions. People fighting for their liberty should keep theirminds open, evaluating opposing arguments, and appreciate the role ofthe devil’s advocate in order to reach the most viable and accurateconclusions on any issue.

Limitingthe influence of the majority

Peopletend to think that their opinions are correct, even undercircumstances in which they are influenced by their self interest,internal as well as external pressures that they are not aware of.This makes it increasingly difficult to control the influence of themajority groups that uphold the wrong views. In addition, differentpeople have varying perceptions of the suitable limits that need tobe implemented in order to protect the society from being harmed bythe wrong views of the majority (Mill, 1859). The society’sstandard and the judgment of what is wrong or right are determined bythree principles. First, Mill holds that self-perception and moralstandards of the higher classes are more likely to determine themorality of the nation. Secondly, men adopt the mandates of theirreligion, which adds to the rules that govern the conduct of thesociety. Lastly, interest of a given society determines thesentiments of a society as a whole. The fact that people derive theirmoral standards and opinions from different sources makes itdifficult to determine to what extent self expression through speechcan be considered to be harmful and where the limit for the freedomof expression should be placed.

Insteadof focusing more on where and how to put a limit to people’sliberty, Mill suggests that the society should emphasize on thesignificance of imparting the correct values to children and othermembers of the society who cannot make rational decisions. This isbecause the society has no right to interfere with the conduct ofpeople, who knowingly puts themselves in situations that aredangerous solely to themselves (Mill, 1859). The society’s mainconcern should be self-protection of others. Mill holds that thesociety should not bother trying to impose positive values on adults.Adults who inflict harm on others by way of abusing their libertyshould be subjected to the legal process. Adults should be punishedfor the harm they inflict on other people by way of action andinaction. By punishing adults who cause harm to others, the societywill be protecting itself, and such a move cannot be considered as alimitation to the liberty of the accused individual.

Questionraised on Mill’s principle of harm

Theprinciple of harm was coined in the nineteenth century, which impliesthat Mill’s intention was to address issues that existed more than150 years ago. During that time, one could only make a speech orexpression that could harm others in public gatherings. The majorquestion that the modern society can ask is can Mill’s principleof harm be considered to be relevant in the contemporary world whereone can harm others through the social media without being seenphysically?

Strengthin Mill’s principle of harm

Millis one of the scholars who made a significant effort to challengetyrannical leadership and advocate for the liberty of all members ofthe society. Although Mill’s principle of harm has been criticizedby several scholars, it has two major strengths. First, Millacknowledges the fact that people should have liberty, but thatliberty needs to be limited in order to ensure that it is not abusedor used to harm other people. Mill’s idea is that liberty shouldnot be given just for the sake of liberty. Mill’s view isconsistent with modern research showing that the freedom of speech isa hidden source of crime, which is associated with more than half ofsecurity incidents in the contemporary world (Ensour, 2013).Therefore, it would only be reasonable to give freedom that willcontribute towards the development of the society, instead of causingsocial instability and harm to members of the society.

Secondly,Mill advice the authority to avoid interfering with the individual’sactions that do not cause harm to others. Many critics have beenraised, arguing that Mill contradicts himself by advocating for alimited liberty while still advising authorities to avoid interferingwith actions that do not harm an individual (Nigel, 2015). This isnot the case because the Mill advice individuals to act in a mannerthat those surroundings and those who sympathize with them wouldprefer (Mill, 1859). This implies that people should act responsiblyand take account of the feelings of their loved ones even if theiractions will not harm them directly. This argument is applicable inthe real world because it is unreasonable and impractical for thegovernment to control every action that one takes. The society hasthe responsibility to teach important values to minors in order tohelp them act responsibly when they become adults. Therefore, Milladvocates for the freedom that comes with responsibilities, a conceptthat can be applied in the social media where authorities have alimited control.

Possibilityof harm being caused by other things other than the usual physicalharm

Spreadof racism through the social media

Thediscovery of the social media as a platform for people to interactand share ideas freely and irrespective of their geographicallocation has been praised, but this discovery has an equal share ofchallenges. One of the current challenges is the ease with which thesocial media has facilitated the spread of racism. According toJakubowicz (2012) the social media have amplified the potentialimpact as well as the reach of “Islamophobia”, the White power,Islamist, anti-Semitism, and ultra-nationalist ideologies. Althoughthe Universal Declaration of Human Rights allows people to expressthemselves irrespective of the type of media they use, takingadvantage of the social media to spread share racist messages cancause harm to the target groups. A study has shown that about 5-10 %of the Tweets posted daily contain racist slurs (Prigg, 2014).

Withmore than 10,000 social media racist posts being made on Tweeteralone, it is difficult for the law enforcers to follow all culpritsgive that they use the sites from different jurisdictions andcontinents. This creates the need for limiting the freedom of speechvia the social media, but since the legal measures cannot work,instilling non-enforceable values into the youths is the most viableapproach. For example, Stuart Mills held that the society and parentsin particular had the responsibility of imparting the suitable valuesinto irrational groups that include children (Mill, 1859). Therefore,parents and the society in general should seek to educate theirchildren on the importance of avoiding racist slurs on the socialmedia by teaching them non-enforceable values.


Thesocial media have made the world a global village, since people canexpress themselves and their message reach missions of audiencewithin seconds. However, criminal groups and individuals that havethe wrong intentions take advantage of the vulnerable users of thesocial media to harass them. Studies have shown that about 15 % ofthe users of online platform have received sexually harassingmessages, where 4 % of them received them from the social mediaplatforms (Ybarra &amp Mitchell, 2008). Individuals who are sexuallyharassed feel depressed, which implies that sexual harassment that ispropagated through the social media can be a significant source ofharm irrespective of the fact that it does not involve any physicalcontact. Although some groups claim a total freedom of speech, it isevident that such a freedom can be misused in the social media. Thistrend has been attributed to obsolete laws that cannot addresstechnology-related challenges (Hyman, 2015). However, the magnitudeof the harm dictates that the problem can only be addressed usingalternative methods (such as teaching of non-enforceable values) tosocial media users.


Nudityused to be experienced in secluded places (such as organized socialevents) that were out of reach for children and irrationalindividuals before the discovery of the social media technology.However, with the advent of the social media, nude pictures andstatements can be shared from any part of the world and their accessis not restricted to anyone. Surprisingly, young girls are solicitedand lured to take nude pictures through the social media and that arethen uploaded on the same social media platform (Johnson &ampWilliford, 2015). These nude pictures get out of hand once they areuploaded to the social media since they are shared within seconds,which can cause emotional harm to youths when they discover thattheir nude pictures are spreading on the social media. This socialmedia-based nudity may also harm other social media users who accesshem unintentionally. Although people have the freedom to expresstheir minds through the social media as well as any other type ofmedia, spreading nudity is a sign of exercising freedom withoutresponsibility.

Culturaland gender stereotypes

Anyform of stereotyping can serve as a source of harm to the targetgroups or individuals. Although stereotyping may take place indifferent ways, cultural and gender-based are the most common typesof stereotyping in the modern world. In essence, stereotyping involvethe development of wrong perceptions about individuals or a group ofpeople on the grounds of their gender, culture, or other socialcharacteristics (Straubhaar &amp Larose, 2004). Stereotyping hasmainly been associated with workplaces, but the advent of the socialmedia has made it a commonplace phenomena. For example, most of theadverts placed on the social media stereotype against women.According to Straubhaar &amp Larose (2004) about 70 % of the advertsmade on the social sites use women as characters, and only 7 % ofthem portray women in professional ways. The rest of the advertsportray young ladies half-naked or in any unprofessional ways. Inaddition, the social media is widely being used to spread thepictures and videos of African children dancing while naked orappearing to be malnourished. This is a form of cultural stereotypethat is spread through the social media.

Controllingstereotype at places of work and other physical locations is easiersince policies and laws can be applied to individuals and groups thatare stereotyped against other cultures of gender groups. However,these laws and policies have been rendered ineffective by technologythat allow a rapid spreading of the a large number of stereotypingcontents that damage the image of the target groups and cause thememotionally as well as psychological harm (Hyman, 2015). The lack ofuniform policies across organizations and jurisdictions makes it evenharder to control stereotype, which implies that the socialmedia-based stereotypes can only be regulated by parents and thesociety imparting proper values into irrational members of thesociety and all users of the social media.

Harmto individuals and groups

Harmis suffered by individuals and groups that share common socialpatterns, especially when those patters are the target ofvictimization. People may be harmed when reckless speech orexpression target an individual in their group. For example,participants in a research conducted by Simon (2000) reported thatthey felt affected when individuals with similar characteristic asthem are victimized or harmed on the grounds of their characteristicsof the background. This is common in the cases of speeches thatcontain racist slurs because they harm all members of the targetedrace. For example, a negative speech that seeks to demean anindividual from an African American background will harm all AfricanAmericans because they share the same color and cultural backgrounds,which means that they could equally go through similar cases ofvictimization and harm. Although these types of slurs are, in mostcases, directed to individuals, they could also be directed to agroup of people and end up harming them as a group. For example,negative speeches and social media posts that insult same sex loversdo not necessarily target at individuals, but the entire group ofpersons who are perceived to have sex orientations that is differentfrom what the society considers to be normal. Therefore, groups andindividuals can equally suffer from harm.

Narrownessof Mill’s understands of harm

Thereare two factors indicating that Mill’s understanding of the conceptof harm as presented in the book “on Liberty” is either toonarrow or broad depending on the factors being considered. First,Mill’s definition of harm is quite narrow in that he focused moreon physical harm. Most of the interpreters of the Mill’s principleof harm hold that the principle is based on material or physicalharm, which makes it narrow. This implies that if the definition ofharm is confined to bodily harm, then, all non-physical types of harmcannot be considered to violate Mill’s principle of harm (Sanderson&amp Pugliese, 2012). In essence, there are many cases of harm thatdo not involve physical interactions, but they affect thepsychological as well as the mental well-being of the targeted groupsand individuals even more than the physical types of harm. Limitingthe discussion of liberty and the concept of harm to physicalimplications also limit the application of the principle in cases ofmental or psychological types of harm. On the other hand, Millcenters his principle of harm on private and public conduct, butfails to establish the distinction between the two realms. Forexample, Mill states, “if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of itwere simply a private injury, it would make some difference whetherthe injury was inflicted only to a few persons” (19). By focusingon both the public and private harm and failing to distinguish oreven define them, made Mill’s discussion of harm quite broad.

and conclusion

Thefreedom of speech is among the most debated topics in the modernworld. Some people feel that they require absolute freedom to speakout their minds while others feel that the freedom is already beingabused to cause emotional as well as psychological harm. Stuart Millis among the scholars who made a significant contribution to thisdebate. Mill’s principle of harm implies that freedom should belimited tom some extent in order to prevent harm that the exercise ofsuch freedom might cause to a person exercising it or to others.Although Mill supported the idea of the autonomic view of life, heexpressed the intention of having the liberty being controlled toreduce its chances of being abused. Mill emphasizes on thesignificance of protecting other people from being harmed by theabuse of freedom, but requires individuals exercising the freedom toutilize the principle of utility to protect themselves from harm byacting in accordance to the wills of those who care for them. Thisimplies that, although liberty may not be limited when it only causesharm to individuals exercising it, Mill advised those individuals totake account of the wishes of those who cares for them.

Inconclusion, the freedom of speech is guaranteed by the laws(including the constitution), but the freedom can be misused to harmother people. This is confirmed by the current trends where thesocial media is being used to cause harm to other people. The commonexamples of the abuse of the social media include the racist commentsposted to social sites, cultural stereotype, public nudity, andsexual harassment. However, since the law cannot control the abuse ofthe social media that across the nations and states, inculcatingunenforceable values in the minds of social media users can reduceits use to harm others. Imparting the right values to the users ofthe social media and members of the society in general will help inthe establishment of a sensible society, instead of relying on theuse of laws to control the conduct of the social media users.


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