College Campuses: No Place for Banned Speech

The increasingly popular practice of no-platforming, such as preventing someone from speaking on a college campus due to their political views, has created a philosophical debate that connects to the principles of free expression defined by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. At first glance, Mill appears to vehemently oppose suppressing free speech, even controversial ideas, but his failure to elaborate on the no harm principle in relation to speech raises some uncertainties to what his position would be on the allowance of hate speech on campuses. I argue that this ambiguity of harm and inciting violence demonstrates that “no-platforming” is a misguided principle because it relies too much on subjective reaction, and not objective definitions of actions. “No-platforming” limits the ability of students to understand the truth and their own opinions and emboldens controversial speakers due to a lack of ideational exposure and the supplementation of authoritative decision-making for individual and rational evaluation and criticism, undermining the mission of a college education.

Mill’s consistent support for free speech demonstrates his likelihood for opposing “no platforming” in a widespread and generalized manner. But, the extent to which the speech inflicts harm or incites violence complicates his opinion on the practice to a case by case basis. Mill argues, “we can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still,” demonstrating his opposition to no-platforming in today’s society (19). Mill believes that this practice may silence ideas containing the truth, and thus limits the human ability to freely understand the truth, a central idea to his beliefs on liberty. Mill argues further that even ideas that are widely regarded as false should not be suppressed. Mill’s defense of allowing such ideas stems from his rejection of ideational infallibility, explaining “those who desire to suppress (ideas) have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging” because this “is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty” (19). Thus, Mill’s concern is with authority determining the fallacy, such as a university administration banning a speaker, instead of the individual making his or her own judgments. Since he believes that all people are equal and should pursue their individual and rational assessments of ideas, “no platforming” violates individual liberty by giving more power to others to determine the worth of various ideas. Additionally, Mill believes that prohibiting the expression of an idea prevents people from being able to understand the intricacies of a subject, stating “the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion” (22). This belief further argues against “no platforming” because the practice does not allow students to engage with why an idea is false from a level of specificity. Simply being told that an idea is wrong and being unable to hear its components expressed allows students to lose sight of the grounds of truth and instead form their beliefs from prejudices of what they think the other side is arguing. Understanding the foundations for such beliefs is fundamental to undermining their validity, and “no platforming” eliminates the ability to deeply investigate, and thus understand fallacies.

However, Mill’s central belief on liberty that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” raises some uncertainties about his position on “no-platforming” because it is unclear whether certain ideas and speech cause harm to others (13). Especially, Mill’s opinion on banning hate speech is ambiguous. Mill clarifies his initial opinion on free speech by explaining, “even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act,” raising the question on what defines speech inciting violence (55). Mill does not conclude whether suppressing these situations is the best option, making his opinion on “no platforming” closer to a case by case basis.

Proponents of “no platforming” consider hate speech to be inherently harmful and thus view its dissemination to have no benefits to society. While implicit political and moral biases do play a role in support for banning opposite opinions, Mill’s harm principle is generally invoked in justification of “no platforming.” For example, proponents of the practice support preventing Richard Spencer, a controversial white supremacist, from being given a forum to express his ideas on a college campus. Proponents would argue that Spencer’s freedom of speech should be limited since it infringes on the rights of others to be free from harm. Further, hateful rhetoric could incite violence and then no longer would simply be speech, but direct harmful action. Richard Spencer’s arguments for racial superiority could cause certain students to commit crimes against minorities in the attempt to assert their dominance, and thus since the speech causes violence and other violations of rights, it should be silenced. This lack of safety prevents students from actively participating in campus society, meaning that allowing hate speech can go against a fundamental principle of a university: active and engaged learning. Besides the inflicted harm, proponents believe there is no intellectual gain from allowing hateful speakers on campus since their ideas are widely considered to be false. In fact, it could impede the search for truth, a key goal of students, by injecting useless opinions into campus discourse and making these ideas seem legitimate. Even considering the intricacies of the ideas that are a part of hate speech gives some legitimacy to them since this gives the possibility of the ideas being at least partially true. This process and consideration provides attention to hateful ideas which may allow them to be popularized and in turn harm even more people either directly through discrimination or indirectly from the speech’s violent effects. Thus, prohibiting hate speech from campuses allows for a focus on legitimate ideas, prevents discrimination and violence, and supports active campus participation, which are all consistent with the harm principle.

Contrarily, I argue that “no platforming” is too subjective, against the principles of a university education, and above all, contradictory to the meaningful search for truth. Although Mill argues that speech can be harmful to others at times, this does not justify “no platforming” for a variety of reasons. First, the classification of “harmful” cannot be clearly defined because it differs depending on the recipient of the hate speech. Laws need to be objective and clear in relation to a specific action taken by an actor (such as threats, a reasonable restriction on free speech), not actions dependent on the reaction of others. While many minorities are justifiably offended by the disgusting rhetoric of Richard Spencer, it affects them in different ways; some may take offense but not allow it to affect their daily lives, while for others it may harm them by limiting their ability to express themselves, feel safe, or actively participate in society, solely due to their racial identity. This demonstrates an inconsistency in what is justified legally and not since subjective outcomes are at play. The harm is wholly dependent on individual recipients, further demonstrating that a law cannot punish the speaker if his actions depend on other people’s reactions. The second problem with Mill’s harm principle in relation to hate speech is his discussion of inciting violence, which is also complicated by subjective recipients of the offensive language. Inciting violence cannot be objectively defined because the same speech could cause some listeners to commit acts of violence and others not to. However, if a speaker explicitly encourages acts of violence, such speech should be banned. But, while simply spewing hateful rhetoric can have a strong correlation with subsequent violence, it is difficult to prove causation and thus cannot be outlawed. Therefore, Mill’s harm principle should only be transformed into law when there is clear and objective harm as a result of a threat or a direct encouragement of violent acts, not when hate speech only has the subjective possibility of harming someone or inciting violence.

The argument made by proponents of “no platforming” that hate speech restricts the search for the truth is entirely contradictory. When students are exposed to hate speech, they are able to recognize the fallacies in the points made by the speaker and thus more thoroughly understand why they disagree with him. Mill agrees with this assessment, arguing “if (the opinion is) wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error” (19). Preventing hate speech from being disseminated on campuses prevents students from understanding what principles define the truth in the given topic and also makes their opinions less valid if they are only told that a given topic is wrong without investigating its intricacies. Mill also argues this point about the exposure of other ideas enhancing the strength and validity in belief in one’s own, saying if one is “unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion” (37). Students must be exposed to hateful ideas so that they can effectively counter them for legitimate reasons regarding truth, not merely because they are considered wrong by others.

Further, banning speakers from an authoritative position can embolden such hate groups by making the public unaware of their reasoning. Proponents of “no platforming” argue that providing a platform can popularize hateful ideas, but in fact, the ideas cannot be countered if people are not exposed to them. It is much more powerful for the majority of individuals to combat hateful rhetoric once they fully understand the opinions rather than universities banning hate speech as if it will make the ideas magically disappear. More emphasis needs to be placed on giving individuals the knowledge and power to fight for truth and equality from an informed and detailed perspective rather than allowing university administrations to broadly ban anything considered hateful. The lack of this emphasis on many of today’s college campuses runs counter to the mission of a college education: the ability of individuals to rationally and deeply explore various ideas. Universities should stay true to their purpose of providing students with the tools they need to think for themselves, and not continue to dictate which ideas are expressed on their campuses because “truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself” (34). Allowing students to individually and informatively combat fallacies and hatred is much more effective than a sweeping ban that is out of their control. Students need to be fully exposed to and aware of the details of all opinions because otherwise, they are not embarking on a meaningful search for truth.

While universities may believe that they have the best interests of their students in mind in the short run, the long-term effects of “no platforming” discourage individual thought. Universities must prioritize their stated missions of the rational search for truth instead of creating a false perception that hate and opposing ideas do not exist. If students are to be truly prepared to tackle real-world problems, campus life must reflect the realities, especially the harsh ones, of the society that students will enter upon graduation.