In While John Stuart Mill is a
In today’s current society and digital revolution, it is much easier to get one’s thoughts and opinions published regardless of how controversial they may be. However, power determines the message that ends up trickling down to the public sphere.
Thus, equal opportunity to be heard or access to public debate is not always the case. In an increasingly liberal society where free speech is rightfully encouraged, certain intolerant individuals attempt to utilize the phrase of “free speech” or “freedom of expression” strategically to portray their own (often damaging) narratives. Therefore, as John Stuart Mill once said, “The subject of this essay is . . . the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (Mill 1). While John Stuart Mill is a long-time proponent of free speech, as it uncovers the truth, Mill also believed there are reasonable limits as he laid out in the “harm principle”.
Certain forms of speech such as defamation of individual or groups of people, or the direct/indirect promotion of hate and violence should all be censored. Therefore, there is undoubtedly a place for the state to take a role in intervening and governing free speech when any form of harm is being caused based on John Stuart Mill’s harm principle and framework from the novel “On Liberty”, as well as past precedent set by cases in Canada, in relation to the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms. Body: Maclean’s Case First of all, the main case study for the necessity of government involvement in governing free speech includes the Maclean’s case; in which members of the Canadian Islamic Congress, president Mohamed Elmasry and Dr. Naiyer Habib, filed a human rights complaint in December of 2007 with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal and the Ontario Human Rights Commission (Fong).
Maclean’s magazine was formally accused of publishing Islamophobic articles during a time period of 2005 to 2007. The inflammatory article in question includes “The Future Belongs to Islam” by Mark Steyn, an excerpt from Steyn’s book titled “America Alone” (Fong). The accusation claimed that the article implored the killing, deportation and conversion of Muslims. Steyn suggests Muslims in Europe will eventually draw even with European population and become the everyday workforce (Steyn).
He uses the prospect of upside-down assimilation to instill fear in readers. Hence, the article itself prompts fear and instigates hate by implying that Muslims are taking over the western world, thereby painting a negative picture of the Muslim religion and its followers in the process. This is a controversial topic in regard to whether freedom of expression should be upheld or any harmful material toward a group should be condemned.
Freedom of speech is meant to advance society as long as society can trust the public’s ability to filter. Despite this, the public’s ability to filter has been thwarted, as equal opportunity or access to rebuke these claims on a similar large-scale platform were not permitted, as expressed in a debate video between Steyn and three Muslim Law school students shown in lecture (Paikin 0:56-5:45). We need not look any further than 22 articles published by Maclean’s, believed to be slandering Muslims, accounting for huge exposure to the public with a 2.
8 million viewership (Paikin 6:30-8:00). Other than this, Steyn’s position of an inevitable “bloody” western takeover and Muslim global objective (Steyn) were found to be deception, on Steyn’s part, by almost all Muslim immigrants living in western countries. In the end, the Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that this matter was out of its jurisdiction, the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal dismissed the complaint, while the Canadian Human Rights Commission dismissed the federal complaint stating, “the writing is polemical, colourful and emphatic, and was obviously calculated to excite discussion and even offend certain readers, Muslim and non-Muslim alike”(Fong). However, concluded that “the views expressed in the Steyn article, when considered as a whole and in context, are not of an extreme nature, as defined by the Supreme Court” (Fong). Although the complaints were dismissed, and the complainants were left disappointed, a strategic objective was achieved; in costing Maclean’s approximately $2 million in legal fees, the cost to publish anti-muslim (arguably hate based) articles increased (Fong).Mill’s Framework: Secondly, John Stuart Mill’s harm principle and framework in “On Liberty” is integral in proving that the government should intervene in this case study, as well as similar cases in regard to governing free speech. The issue Mill addresses with the harm principle is the tyranny of the majority theory, which must first be understood in order to fully comprehend the harm principle.
Mill believes that just because an individual lives in a democracy, they are not free from tyranny (Mill 1). Initially, the tyranny of the majority can possibly occur through the official acts of public authorities. For example, the majority may vote for a party which promotes a campaign based on anti-immigration. However, this may translate to tyranny not from legal authority, but rather overwhelming social opinions such as making generalizing and stereotypical statements about groups of people (Mooney). The solution for this issue that Mill suggests when limiting free speech is the harm principle. Mill dictates that when actions cause harm to others, it is necessary to impose sanctions, or in this specific case (Maclean’s case) that government/judiciary intervention is needed as proven when Mill states that limits and censorship should occur when “the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act”(Mill 46). In reality, if our understanding of the harm principle is limited to simply, “anything goes as long as it won’t affect others” problems will arise.
For example, what if a person may want to harm themselves? Mill does not condone just allowing this to happen as it doesn’t harm anyone else. The reason for this is because the harm principle originates from utility, which states that actions should be done for the greatest good for the greatest amount of people (Alway, 2018). Another thing to consider is Mill’s definition of harm.
Harm is not only physical harm/violence but also constitutes harming the rights of others or hindering their growing position or standing in society, which Steyn has indirectly contributed to with his article. According to Mill, no one is isolated, thus, most actions do affect others around us when he states, “No person is an entirely isolated being; it is impossible for a person to do anything seriously or permanently hurtful to himself, without mischief reaching at least to his near connections, and often far beyond them” (Mill 68). Additionally, part of Mill’s framework aside from the harm principle, focused on two things; that it is immoral for a majority to silence a minority whether it be through social constraints or legislation and that suppression of a minority’s voice is counter intuitive to truth as both minority and majority voices consist of some truth (Mill 44). Therefore, it is clear that Maclean’s magazine specifically, whether intentionally, or unintentionally, has silenced a minority and government is needed to intervene in order to allow for fair and equal representation by ordering Maclean’s to publish a counter-opinion..
As Mill states we become “deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth” (Mill 13) if government does not intervene to, at the very least, give the Muslim contingent a large-scale platform to rebuke what they believe may be hateful or harmful speech. Critical Analysis of Mill’s Framework: Moreover, any reasonable argument based on Mill’s framework must critically analyze and consider any faults with said framework. Mill clearly advocates for free speech even if this doctrine is considered wrong or immoral by many by many, but wisely hedges this with his harm principle. What exactly did Mill mean when he referred to harm.
The flaw therein lies with what not only Mill means when he refers to harm but also what society interprets as harm. Mill seems to address the question of “what speech constitutes harm?” when Mill discusses corn dealers. Mill believes it is acceptable to accuse the corn dealers of starving the poor, but it is not acceptable to make that same claim to an “excited mob” assembled near the corn dealers attack as this would likely insinuate harm (Mill 46). The second form of speech constitutes a mischievous act as Mill previously mentioned (Mill 47). Where Mill’s framework may be slightly flawed is that it still places too much faith in general society to determine what will or won’t cause serious harm as this is subjective and nearly impossible to predict. It seems, that Mill’s framework on the surface, sparingly allows for state intervention.
Only when one can show direct harm to rights, often translating to a physical attack, that it is legitimate to impose a sanction. Another flaw in the framework is that today’s society is more socially aware of psychological harm along with physical harm. By applying Mill’s framework of the harm principle to the mental domain, more instances arise where it would be best suited to prohibit forms of hate speech. As Mill’s framework is currently constructed limits on free speech are narrow due to the predicament of proving current or eventual physical harm. My Opinion: Furthermore, in my opinion, there are serious flaws in the ways (or lack thereof) Maclean’s treats any potential responses by the Muslim community and in the distribution of Steyn’s hateful article that lead me to believe that government intervention was and is still required. To begin with, one main issue lies in the ability to acquire a necessary platform to debate and have equal opportunity to respond to Steyn’s commentary.
The “other” side of the story has not been adequately heard as Maclean’s or any other big platforms have refused to grant exposure to a someone from a Muslim perspective, to the likes of which Steyn’s has had the pleasure of experiencing, to the tune of 2.8 million in viewership (Paikin 6:30-8:00). Additionally, once again in my opinion, the very article itself by Steyn should be considered harmful in the sense that it could lead to a form of violence or “mischievous acts” while attempting to stifle Muslim progress as a minority group in western society.
Therefore, the government should be compelled to intervene and put an end to this specific case of marginalization, cultural appropriation and misrepresentation of Muslims. On another note, even if Steyn’s comments are deemed to not be “hate” however offensive or hurtful they may be, that in and of itself is not a reason to repeat these thoughts or to give them an elevated platform to spread across the population. There is logic in refraining from repeating harsh speech, while allowing the right to free speech. It is not fundamental to the greater good of society as whole to aid those who express bigoted or offensive views, resulting in mass movements which can eventually lead to violence. A global example of the merits of my stance on this would be citing the Norwegian massacre of 2011 as an instance where no action was taken to articles similar to Steyn’s, instilling fear of a Muslim “takeover”, leading to violence and evidently serious harm to all involved. Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in a bomb-and-shooting rampage in a Muslim targeted attack which stemmed from negative nationalistic beliefs (CBS/AP). Breivik seemed to have an extremist view that Norway should be home to only a specific ethnicity and killed innocent Muslims as a result of Islamophobic ideologies and a hatred for the growing Muslim population due to immigration (CBS/AP).
It is debatable where Breivik got his xenophobic ideas from, but this is a real-world scenario where we see the catastrophic results if allowed to fester. Steyn projects similar views in his article of a growing Muslim population that Europe must beware of, and even though no violence is used, individuals in the public may not properly filter this information, forming forms of terrorist groups in response. Overall, this proves that in the hope of protecting minorities, it is reasonable to assert judgement or even restrict certain forms of speech. Free Speech in Canada and Past Cases: Finally, it is important to look at Canadian law itself and past cases which may provide past precedent or what is historically known as “stare decisis”. As previously mentioned, the Maclean’s case was dismissed, but despite this the law has recognized that speech is a powerful tool. Speech shapes ideas through communication; it can be used for utility (greatest good for greatest amount) or it can be used as a weapon. A case in Canadian history where speech had to be limited is Saskatchewan (Human Rights Commission) v.
Whatcott. Whatcott distributed fliers that promoted hatred against gays and lesbians, this was quickly ruled against and a reasonable limit was placed on Whatcott’s free speech (CBC). One may make the case that Steyn’s article was not promoting hatred. This is debatable but a fair critique.
Another prominent case that limited freedom of speech and set precedent in Canada was R. V. Keegstra.
In this case in Canadian history, James Keegstra used his powerful position as an educator to teach (false) anti-Semitic views. The supreme court upheld his conviction of hate crimes and limited his freedom of speech (CBC). Similarly, Steyn has been using his platform to spread anti-Muslim views which includes false generalizing statements of a takeover objective; why then has his freedom of speech not been limited? In addition, when looking at the Canadian charter of rights and freedoms we can observe section 2… freedom of religion, which states, “one has …the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination”(Legislative Services Branch).
Steyn specifically intimidates the public stating that “the future belongs to Islam” in his title, while going on to say Islamic Sharia laws will overthrow current democracy, effectively instilling fear and hatred towards Muslims. This is not only harmful but hinders the progression of a minority group within social hierarchies and calls for the reversal of any Muslim teachings or disseminations in the form of conversion. Overall, this can be compared to Japanese internment in Canadian history where false narratives led to drastic discriminatory practices which eventually harmed all families of Asian ethnicity; this goes to show how far harmful speech can go if left to fester, eventually unfortunately satisfying the harm principle. Of thousands of complaints in the Canadian judiciary system since 1977, only 112 have been hate speech cases.
Of these, only 57 received a hearing by the Tribunal. This low rate is because borderline cases are often dismissed without a hearing since it is difficult tot prove evidence of any likely effects (Legislative Services Branch). Therefore, as a whole I would lean on the side that the restrictions on speech in Canada are far too lenient and could lead to serious violence (in-turn, harm) if left untouched.
Conclusion: To conclude, with the intention of protecting minorities, it is integral to society that the judicial system asserts its right to judge and even restrict speech within reasonable limits as outlined in the charter. In today’s society, Mill’s framework is accepted by many democratic countries, and many laws are enforced according to the harm principle. The only issue is the notion of whether an act causes harm or not. Our rights inter-connected and should be balanced because no person or group’s rights outweigh another’s.
Our government should enforce this principle with either striking down Steyn’s article or forcing a counter argument to be published. The anti-Muslim rhetoric is unacceptable and equally frightening to innocent, moderate Muslim-Canadians as extreme Islamist rhetoric is to Canadian citizens of any religion. Therefore, the government should intervene in such a way to prove that the size of the proverbial megaphone (symbolizing power and wealth) will not determine what the public is forced to hear, but rather that equal opportunity to debate is granted.