Free Speech (in association with English PEN, and the Bishopsgate Institute)
Chapter Two of J.S. Mill's On Liberty (last week's focus) was undoubtedly influenced by John Milton's Areopagitica, a polemical tract published in 1644 in reaction to a 1643 Order of Parliament that proposed the licensing of books. Under this Order a censor would determine which books could be published, a return to the status quo of control of the presses that had been in place since the reign of Elizabeth, but which had temporarily been suspended following the revolution. Anti-Puritan tracts were in circulation and the Order was a reaction to what it labelled 'many false, scandalous, seditious and libelous' works that had recently been pubished 'to the great defamation of religion and government'. Read more on the historical context of Areopagitica.
Milton was strongly opposed to book licensing on both practical and moral/religious grounds, though not to post-publication censorship and punishment (for illegal libel and blasphemy, which was also illegal). Many passages in Milton's book echo phrases and ideas in Mill's chapter. This is not to say that Milton's is a straightforward defence of freedom of speech - it is much more specific than that: a reaction to a particular law and a robust statement of the value of books broadening out from its specific theme.
I love this passage from Milton:
For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the earth; but a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
One key difference between the two writers is that Mill was an atheist from an early age; whereas Milton was religious and believed that each individual was responsible for his or her religious beliefs - this view of MIlton's motivates much of Areopagitica.
The title 'Areopagitica' alludes to the rocky area outside near the Acropolis in Athens where the democratic council of the city state would meet to decide law and policy. So Milton was appealing to a vision of a democratic parliament making just laws through free and open discussion.
Kindle versions are also available, e.g. here.
Alan Haworth, in his book Free Speech (Routledge, 1998) has provided a useful Appendix in which he quotes parallel passages from Mill and Locke. Although Mill gives the thoughts his own twist, there are obvious echoes both in language and ideas. To give a few examples:
…how shall the licensers themselves be confided in, unless we can confer upon them, or they assume above all others in the land, the grace of infallibility and uncorruptedness?
Here's Mill on the same theme:
All silencing of opinion is an assumption of infallibility. It's condemnation may be allowed to rest on this common argument, not the worse for being common.
Or again, Milton on the value of contrary opinions, and the morally purifying effects of contested opinions:
I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather: that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.
Mill on the idea that adverse opinions serve to bring out the truth on any matter:
...though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject 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.
For more in the same vein, see Haworth p224-8, or read Areopagitica and then Chapter 2 of On Liberty.
For fascinating information about the original context of Milton's Areopagitica watch this lecture (by John Rogers, Yale University):
J.S. Mill and The Internet
Are Mill's arguments good arguments? Do they apply today?
Many of Mill's views can themselves be challenged. Certainly in present day discussions of free speech, the truth of the view that is suppressed or censored is not necessarily what is at issue. Very often censors deliberately suppress what they consider to be dangerous truths, knowing full well that these are truths (the numbers of students killed in Tiananmen Square, for example), or else the issue may well be one of respect, particularly in a religious context.
Not all censors assume infallibility: some just think they are almost certainly right, which is not the same thing at all.
Does this mean that Mill's arguments are no longer relevant to the present day context. The most important development in recent years is the combination of the Internet with widely available digital technology.
Richard Posner in an essay in the interesting US-focused collection Bollinger and Stone (eds) Eternally Vigilant: Free Speech in the Modern Era has identified 4 features of the current use of the Internet that may be thought to magnify the dangers of irresponsible speech:
Lack of quality control
Huge potential readership
Anti-social people find their soul mates
Cass Sunstein (also in an essay in Bollinger and Stone (eds)) has expressed a further concern that Internet users filter the content they encounter to create a 'Daily Me' which simply confirms their prejudices for the most part. A deliberative democracy needs people who encounter views that are different from their own...
Do these factors mean that there are both qualitative and quantitative features of the new media that make Mill's earlier framework for establishing reasonable the limits of freedom of speech obsolete? Further reading on this topic: Nigel Warburton Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction, Chapter 5 'Free Speech in the Age of the Internet'.
Two recent events involving incitement to violence and xenophobia formed the focus of our discussion...
First, the case of an extremist website that seemed to be inciting violence against MPs who voted in favour of going to war in Iraq. (An update on this story here)
If, as seems reasonable, we should take the presumed intent behind the juxtaposition of names and addresses with details of how to obtain a kitchen knife etc., then this site appears to be encouraging violence, and in a context were we might expect violence to be the outcome. (For a - tangential - discussion of whether meaning is simply literal meaning or intended meaning in context, listen to my interview with philosopher of language Stephen Neale). Compare this with a recent alleged case of incitement to murder which in many people's eyes was simply a bad taste joke.
A different case from last week's news: a German neo-Nazi internet radio station was shut down. Neo-nazism is illegal in Germany. Does xenophobic expression constitute incitement to violence? Is it right to censor such expression? Or should it simply be met with counter-speech?
A topic that is relevant to the first part of next week's session (on incitements to violence), the power of the 'heckler's veto' and the implied threat of violence as a reaction to free expression crops up in this podcast interview with the U.S. philosopher T.M. Scanlon
Two Twitter cases that should contribute to next week's discussion of incitement to violence are discussed in this article from Time Magazine.