A Utilitarian Defense of Free Speech on College Campuses

Should college campuses adopt a “zero tolerance” policy toward the expression of opinions which are deemed by some, perhaps even the majority, to be offensive? Should college campus administrators and faculty work to encourage debate concerning highly emotional issues such as the use of military force in Iraq?

Colleges and universities have often been described as “islands of freedom in a sea of repression.” Increasingly, college campuses have become hotbeds of emotional and sometimes fervent arguments over such issues as privacy rights, affirmative action, economic and military globalization, the Bush administration’s handling of the war on terror and the Iraq crisis, etc. In the late nineties, Stanford University adopted “speech codes” to protect individuals from hate speech. Critics of speech codes argue that they violate the spirit of free speech that in past generations allowed colleges and universities to flourish as centers of free inquiry and social tolerance. Critics also argue that “political correctness” has itself become an oppressive ideology. Defendants of speech codes have argued that such policies are the true protectors of freedom of speech, thought, and individual rights. The question arises: on what grounds do we defend the right of free speech on college campuses? What limits should be imposed on speech considered to be dangerous or threatening?

Mill’s Case for the utility of Free Speech
J.S. Mill makes an argument for free speech on his work On Liberty that privacy-rights advocates normally shun. Instead of arguing for speech protection from a rights-based position, Mill offers a case for speech protection on utilitarian grounds. Mill argues that the protection of free speech is not only consistent with the libertarian ideals of protecting individuals’ rights of non-interference (e.g. freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, etc.) but that the protection of free speech is more socially beneficial than the suppression of free speech. The thrust of his argument is geared toward the latter (utilitarian) claim.

Mill asks: why should one holding a minority opinion (i.e. a less-received opinion) be given the freedom to express that opinion, particularly if that opinion is likely to hatch or inspire bitter emotion? In answering his question, Mill examines three cases concerning the veracity of minority views (i.e. those not held by the majority) and concludes that the truth-quotient of a claim falling under or defining a minority view generally falls under one of three categories: the claim is either True, False, or a mixture of both.

Case 1: The minority view turns out to be true (e.g. Galileo’s statement that the earth revolves around the sun) and the majority view (the earth-centered universe) is false. In this case, it should be obvious that allowing the minority view to be expressed is beneficial to the whole of our society.

Case 2: The minority view is partially true and partially false. For example, suppose one were to argue that evolution never occurred. Even though this claim defies both a lot of evidence which supports various theories of evolution and it also brings the theory of natural selection under perhaps unjustifiable scrutiny, it nevertheless forces defenders of of various theories of evolution to reexamine both their methods (e.g. carbon dating) and their theoretical commitments (e.g. micro vs. macro evolution). Since the vast majority of social issues, and many accepted scientific theories (e.g. “Big Bang” theory) have at least a ‘touch of gray’, hearing a variety of views forces those who defend them to sharpen and enliven their arguments.

Case 3: The minority view is false and the received view is true. For example, suppose a scholar were to write a book defending the thesis that slavery never happened in the United States. Why should we even tolerate such an outlandish view?

  1. Even though the scholar’s claims are false, again this forces us to revisit and perhaps rediscover much of the evidence we have documenting the history of slavery. This in turn informs both the way we do history, the way we accept truth claims, and the way we view the present.
  2. The falseness of the scholar’s claims actually strengthens many of our commonly received views about not just the fact of slavery, but it’s legacy also.

By examining all three possibilities for NOT tolerating minority opinion and finding that in each case the toleration of minority opinion is socially beneficial, Mill concludes that it is more beneficial to society to protect minority opinion than it is to suppress it. However, the case does not end there. I would like to leave a few questions that I hope all of us continue to ask ourselves:

  1. Should there be boundaries/limits to free speech in schools?
  2. Is individual freedom necessary to promote the ideals of a democratic country?
  3. Does free speech incite hatred and fingerpointing? Should some forms of free speech be forbidden in schools? Should speech deemed to be ‘harmful’ to certain individuals or groups be banned from schools/colleges?
  4. Does tolerance need to be taught?

– Joe Cronin


One Comment

  1. interesting points to argue against the republic. Even when found to be offensive, lessons against conformity are hallmark to progression in human ethics. Riddled in secret truths of similarity between enemies. Silence, like hunger, doesn’t last for long.


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