Harm Principle For thisessay’s purpose, we can treat the classic formulation of Mill’s harm principleas canonical. Mill offers ‘one verysimple principle as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society withthe individual in the way of compulsion and control.’ (Mill 1869, pp.
15) Thisprinciple asserts that ‘the sole end forwhich mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering withthe liberty of action of any of their number is… to prevent harm to others.’ (Mill1869, pp15) Mill’s harm principle has a firm place in the centreof liberal systems in criminal law, as well as in all political theory ingeneral. Philosopher Joel Feinberg argues that “liberalism, as I have understood it is the view that…
harm andoffence to other people exhaust the relevant reasons for state coercion bymeans of the criminal law.” (Feinberg1986, pp.101) My view is, consistent with Mill’s, that incitement and other forms ofterroristic speech such as recruitment are clearly liable to censorship on bothmy own and Mill’s account because they are directly harmful to others and theirspeech directly corresponds to an appeal to cause harm to others. I am notattempting to argue that the issue lies in the morality or otherwise ofterroristic speech, but that terroristic speech is objectively harmful.
As Millso firmly believed, someone could post ‘terrorism is justifiable’1and despite the mass consensus that the statement is wrong, the act itself ofsaying that would not be considered illegal. The statement, although containingthe word terrorism does not count as terroristic speech as there is no harm causedin saying it and there is no threat of violence or coercion; subjective offencealone is no sufficient cause for censorship if this is the extent of the harmthat it is doing. “though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonlydoes, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinionon any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collisionof adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of beingsupplied.” (Mill 1869, pp.15) Despitesocial media not having been an issue for Mill, I contend that Mill would havedeclared that social media platforms have no right to censor or report acertain view or expression because there is no direct breach of the harmprinciple, even if the vast majority may consider those views to be morallyreprehensible.
Mill was passionate that people may discuss anything, regardlessof how challenging the topic – be it murder, terrorism, pornography or othersocial taboos. In accordance with Mills’ harm principle, the reason why Channel4 for example may decide not to air or to pixelate a video of a beheading onnews outlets is not necessarily for legal reasons, but is in line with Mill’sprincipal of avoiding harm – they might consider such images to be deeplydestressing for some people, especially considering that children that may beviewing, which is a form of self-censorship. Equally, users of social mediahave an unlimited right to self-censorship that surpasses law, they can takeconditional steps themselves beyond the limits of the law. For example, inassessing the choice to not re-share a video of a beheading, even if it were legalfor the video to be shared, users of social media could choose to self-censorif they believed it to prevent harm. Additionally,I believe that if your speech is going to harm others,then the public have the right to withdraw their acceptance of it, because itconcerns, essentially the right to self-defence.
As we have already definedterrorist speech as coercive speech, it threatens others’ conditions for theirown free speech. For example, sharing advice on how to home-make bombs for example,would fall into Mill’s category of material worthy of censorship because it isdirectly enabling others to commit to harm which they otherwise would not beable to do. Therefore, since terroristicspeech explicitly involves the threatening of others, people have a right towithdraw their acceptance. 1. As mentioned in the introduction of this paper, thisessay is not attempting to discuss the various arguments for and against thenotion that terrorism can be justified, despite there being existing argumentsthat support both sides.