John Stuart Mill on the Liberty of Thought and Discussion

Free speech has always been under attack. Throughout history, there have always been people who claim to know the truth and to possess the right to silence others who hold contrary views. So also throughout history, there have been defenders of free speech. The great English political theorist and moral philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) was a formidable force in defending the freedom of speech. He devoted the second chapter of his book “On Liberty” (1859) on the topic of the freedom of thought and expression. Here’s a brief excerpt from it.

Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

I agree with Mill. The government does not have the right to silence any one, regardless of whether or not it has the support of the people.

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