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Do we have a right to free speech, and are there any circumstances when that right can be legitimately infringed?

This essay will examine the limits of our right to free speech in the light of one of the most famous defences of personal sovereignty, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. In On Liberty Mill argues that 'the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others' (1974, 68). This maxim is known as the harm principle. Mill argues that any citizen ought to be able to expound any argument, sentiment, ideal or opinion on any subject matter without fear of censure or punishment. 'there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered' (1974, 75). This sentiment exists in a similar format as article 19 of the UN Charter 'everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers' (2001, 272)

Mill's harm principle is based on the concept of utility, wherein actions which are desirable are those which result in the maximum benefit (utility) for all people involved. In our discussion an instance where one person's utterance directly infringes the rights of another is one where the harm principle may be rightfully invoked. This is the crux of the harm principle and the reason why it is so difficult to apply. It allows for a wide conception of freedom of expression and places almost no restraints on the types of utterances people can make because it is hard to prove that someone's words have caused another person's rights to be infringed.

In a liberal democracy the line is considerably transient and often imperceivable. Although the harm principle is a fine ideal it is sometimes unpalatable (and often unwise) to allow free speech in every instance. There will always be societal disapprobation accorded to certain classes of utterance, often based on one group or another taking offence, which instead of curtailing our basic freedoms actually extend them. As women struggled toward equality during the last century (and continue to struggle today) it has become unacceptable to be overtly sexist in polite conversation; equally, racism and homophobia have become taboo and these changes have attendant benefits which are reflected in the conferral of equal rights to groups who, in the past, have been second class citizens. To put it somewhat crudely, although I am no longer 'allowed' to call a gay man queer, that man is permitted the same rights as heterosexual couples enjoy in marriage; I have lost my right to say what I please but the homosexual community has gained the same civil benefits as the rest of society. In Millian terms, the overall amount of utility has increased.

When speech is limited for the sake of other values, such as equality under the law as in the previous example, a fair exchange has been made. That we have a right to free speech is a necessary condition of living in a liberal democracy and may be considered an inalienable right. However, as we have seen, absolute freedom to say whatever we please can be divisive and harmful. Although freedom of speech is an important right it is not singularly so. As I hope I have shown, freedom of speech ought not to be discarded in favour of other fundamental principles that are the basis of our society but it ought neither to be given automatic precedence when two or more rights clash. 'To individuality should belong the part of life in which it is chiefly the individual that is interested; to society, the part which chiefly interests society' (1974, 141)

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