Critical Thinking

Harm but that terroristic speech is objectively harmful.

Harm Principle


For this
essay’s purpose, we can treat the classic formulation of Mill’s harm principle
as canonical. Mill offers ‘one very
simple principle as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with
the individual in the way of compulsion and control.’ (Mill 1869, pp.15) This
principle asserts that ‘the sole end for
which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with
the liberty of action of any of their number is… to prevent harm to others.’ (Mill
1869, pp15)

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Mill’s harm principle has a firm place in the centre
of liberal systems in criminal law, as well as in all political theory in
general. Philosopher Joel Feinberg argues that “liberalism, as I have understood it is the view that… harm and
offence to other people exhaust the relevant reasons for state coercion by
means of the criminal law.” (Feinberg
1986, pp.101) My view is, consistent with Mill’s, that incitement and other forms of
terroristic speech such as recruitment are clearly liable to censorship on both
my own and Mill’s account because they are directly harmful to others and their
speech directly corresponds to an appeal to cause harm to others.


I am not
attempting to argue that the issue lies in the morality or otherwise of
terroristic speech, but that terroristic speech is objectively harmful. As Mill
so firmly believed, someone could post ‘terrorism is justifiable’1
and despite the mass consensus that the statement is wrong, the act itself of
saying that would not be considered illegal. The statement, although containing
the word terrorism does not count as terroristic speech as there is no harm caused
in saying it and there is no threat of violence or coercion; subjective offence
alone is no sufficient cause for censorship if this is the extent of the harm
that it is doing.


“though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly
does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion
on any object is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision
of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being
supplied.” (Mill 1869, pp.15)


social media not having been an issue for Mill, I contend that Mill would have
declared that social media platforms have no right to censor or report a
certain view or expression because there is no direct breach of the harm
principle, even if the vast majority may consider those views to be morally
reprehensible. Mill was passionate that people may discuss anything, regardless
of how challenging the topic – be it murder, terrorism, pornography or other
social taboos. In accordance with Mills’ harm principle, the reason why Channel
4 for example may decide not to air or to pixelate a video of a beheading on
news outlets is not necessarily for legal reasons, but is in line with Mill’s
principal of avoiding harm – they might consider such images to be deeply
destressing for some people, especially considering that children that may be
viewing, which is a form of self-censorship. Equally, users of social media
have an unlimited right to self-censorship that surpasses law, they can take
conditional steps themselves beyond the limits of the law. For example, in
assessing the choice to not re-share a video of a beheading, even if it were legal
for the video to be shared, users of social media could choose to self-censor
if they believed it to prevent harm.


I believe that if your speech is going to harm others,
then the public have the right to withdraw their acceptance of it, because it
concerns, essentially the right to self-defence. As we have already defined
terrorist speech as coercive speech, it threatens others’ conditions for their
own 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 is
directly enabling others to commit to harm which they otherwise would not be
able to do. Therefore, since terroristic
speech explicitly involves the threatening of others, people have a right to
withdraw their acceptance.

1. As mentioned in the introduction of this paper, this
essay is not attempting to discuss the various arguments for and against the
notion that terrorism can be justified, despite there being existing arguments
that support both sides.    


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