- Politics lecturer Dr Pete Woodcock on Doncaster airport, the harm principle and the right to be stupid.
“John Stuart Mill in his defence of freedom of speech and action On Liberty famously wrote 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 self-protection… the only person for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’ In other words what I say might be stupid, ill thought out, offensive, in your eyes plainly wrong or against all the social and moral laws of society, but that does not mean to say that you can stop me from saying it or that I should face any penalty for saying/doing it unless someone else is harmed. You can remonstrate with me, tell me where I am wrong or tell me that you think I should shut up, as you have a right to freedom of expression as well, but you cannot punish me from saying anything unless it harms someone else. Society will be overall happier if freedom of speech is allowed to flourish than if it is curtailed.
What then of Paul Chambers, who after snow forced the closure of a South Yorkshire airport, wrote in a tweet, “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” Now if this were a genuine threat, or if he were enticing violence, he deserved punishing on Mill’s dictum as this would, if carried out, have harmed people. But presumably no-one for one minute actually thought that he had the capability or desire to blow the airport sky high, otherwise he would not have simply been fined a few hundred quid in the first instance. It was a joke – and we have a right to suggest that it was a pretty unfunny one, and perhaps one which should not have been made, but the potential damage to society that comes from restricting freedom of speech is much more harmful.
Mill was not an out and out libertarian; he did not think we could do what we wanted, when we wanted and expect people to put up with it without comment. He did, however, think that if we wanted to take civil sanctions against someone that we had to have a very good reason for it, and being offended by something, disagreeing with it or thinking that something was irresponsible was insufficient reason. Paul Chambers, whatever we think of him, harmed no-one. In a world where blogs, status updates and tweets let us see our thoughts all the time we need to be extremely careful before engaging in any form of censorship.”
Get the full story.