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Growing up in Venezuela, a country deeply afflicted by anarchy and corruption, taught me just how important a free marketplace of ideas is to the very foundation of a prosperous society.
The notion that conflicting opinions and opposition ought to be encouraged, not persecuted, seemed revolutionary to a teenager moving to the United States. Just how those states managed to stay united, despite there being open conversations about governmental misdoings, was something my mind could not comprehend at the time.
Contrasting this practice to the countless hours my childhood memories showed of Hugo Chavez’s infamous “cadenas nacionales” – times when my country’s dictator interrupted every national media broadcast and forced all citizens to watch him – left me in a dizzying state of awe.
Freedom of speech is one of the most important civil rights in a democratic society. By promoting autonomy and self-expression, it enables citizens to exercise critical scrutiny in the formation of a public opinion that keeps the governing body in check. Yet, in the past few years, the evolution of social media as a platform for speech has introduced a new and unknown variable into the public discourse equation.
Subsequent attempts by those very platforms at imposing restrictions on public rhetoric have shown one side on the political spectrum being pitted against the other, with seemingly arbitrary decisions being made without further explanations. The same companies who claim the First Amendment acts as their guiding compass seem to struggle with the distinction that ought to be made between a platform and a publisher.
It came as no surprise, then, that when Elon Musk finally announced his take over of Twitter, the internet erupted into chaos. Musk, who calls himself a “free speech absolutist,” has explained that free speech to him is “that which matches the law.”
“If people want less free speech,” he reasoned on Twitter, “they will ask government to pass laws to that effect.”
John Stuart Mill’s classic “On Liberty“ provides a conception of personal freedom, harm, and freedom of expression that has extended considerable influence on modern First Amendment jurisprudence – the base upon which the law Musk refers to is based.
By presenting an evolving understanding of the meaning of freedom itself, Mill inspires a “marketplace of ideas” in which truth is not deterred by leaders or censorship, but enhanced by diversity of opinion, dissent, and challenges to orthodoxy.
He contends that the organic true self is “not a machine to be built after a model,” but a living thing that must be protected from both governmental tyranny and societal conformity. In this sense, freedom is not exclusively valuable in an instrumental capacity, but it presents choices and expression as a form of self-creation with profound moral significance.
Mill’s defense of freedom of thought provides an argument both promoting the marketplace of ideas and opposing governmental and societal suppression centered around three main contentions.
First, because there is no single individual who knows the truth, restricting an idea may entail censoring the truth.
Second, the best path towards arriving at this truth is through free competition of ideas. If a certain conclusion is unable to withstand the weight of a challenge, then it should not be deemed true in the first place.
Finally, because no one idea is the sum of the truth, even those suggestions containing only a portion of the truth can help society acquire knowledge. In this sense, falsehoods offer value, as they both test the truth and prevent it from becoming a dogma.
Therefore, Mill contends, the pursuit of truth should be directed by an exchange of ideas that empowers individuality against the coercion of social conventions.
Much like Musk, he believes in a free marketplace of ideas in which individual participants are allowed to organically determine their own rules and regulations, without the need for arbitrary restrictions to be imposed by inexperienced third parties.
This doctrine has arguably shaped modern free speech jurisprudence, as Mill’s harm principle’s determination that speech may only be limited when it causes a direct and clear violation of rights is reflected in standard First Amendment applications and common law cases.
This was best exemplified in the case of Village of Skokie v. National Socialist Party of America, where the Illinois Supreme Court held that a display of swastikas did not constitute “fighting words,” meaning that it was not likely to incite immediate violence or retaliation, and its restriction was therefore unconstitutional.
This evaluation of whether an expression will result in imminent lawless action found in the American legal system represents Mill’s legacy: “public expression of ideas may not be prohibited merely because the ideas are themselves offensive to some of their hearers.”
However, it is important to consider that if Mill’s principle is used as the base for limiting speech, very few prohibitions will result. Since restriction is only warranted when a direct harm can be demonstrated, this will potentially translate into only cases implicating specific individuals or tangible consequences getting checked.
Thus, as Elon Musk ventures out to reimagine a world in which social media promotes “absolute” freedom of speech, this same struggle for balance between safety and liberty is bound to present a challenge.
Whatever the case, it is imperative that the United States maintain the same course towards freedom of thought and diversity of opinion that has allowed this nation to adopt such an extraordinary role in history.
I already had to leave my country. If this one fails, I don’t know where I’ll go.
Olga Benacerraf is a Pre-Law student at Boston University and is originally from Caracas, Venezuela.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.