Freedom of speech refers to people’s ability to say what they want without punishment.

Most people focus on punishment by the state but social disapproval or protest can also have a chilling effect on free speech. The consequences of some kinds of speech can make people feel less confident in speaking their mind at all.

Since most philosophers agree there is no such thing as absolute free speech, the debate largely focuses on why we should restrict what people say. Many will state, “I believe in free speech except…”. What comes after that? This is where the discussion on what the exceptions and boundaries to free speech are.

Even John Stuart Mill, who is so influential on this topic we need to discuss his ideas at length, thought free speech has limits. You would usually be free to say, “Immigrants are stealing our jobs”. If you say so in front of an angry mob of recently laid off workers who also happen to be outside an immigrant resource centre, you might cause violence. Mill believed you should face consequences for remarks like these.

This belief stems from Mill’s harm principle, which states we should be free to act unless we’re harming someone else. He thought the only speech we should forbid is the kind that causes direct harm to other people.

Mill’s support for free speech is related to his consequentialist views. He thought we should be governed by laws leading to the best long-term outcomes. By allowing people to voice their views, even those we find immoral, society gives itself the best chance of learning what’s “true”.

This happens in two ways. First, the majority who think something is immoral might be wrong. Second, if the majority are right, they’ll be more confident of their position if they’ve successfully argued for it. In either case, free speech will improve society.

If we silence dissenting views, it assumes we already have the right opinion. Mill said “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility”.

Accepting the limits of our own knowledge means allowing others to speak their mind – even if we don’t like what they’ve got to say.

As Noam Chomsky said, “If you’re in favour of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise”.

Free speech advocates tend to limit restrictions on speech to ‘direct’ harms like violence or defamation. Others think the harm principle is too narrow in definition. They believe some speech can be emotionally damaging, socially marginalising, and even descend into hate speech. They believe the speech that causes ‘indirect’ harms should also be restricted.



This leads people to claim citizens do not have the right to be offensive or insulting. Others disagree. Some don’t believe offence is socially or psychologically harmful. Furthermore, they suggest we cannot reasonably predict what kinds of speech will cause offence. Whether speech is acceptable or not becomes subjective. Some might find any view offensive if it disagrees with their own, which would see increasing calls for censorship.

In response, a range of theorists suggest offending is harmful and causes injury. They also say it has insidious effects on social cohesion because it places victims in a constant state of vulnerability.

In Australia, Race Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane is a strong proponent of this view. He believes certain kinds of speech “undermine the assurance of security to which every member of a good society is entitled”. Judith Butler goes further. She believes once you’ve been the victim of “injurious speech”, you lose control over your sense of place. You no longer know where you are welcome or when the next abuse will occur.

For these reasons, those who support only narrow limits to free speech are sometimes accused of prioritising speech above other goods like harmony and respect. As Soutphommasane says, “there is a heavy price to freedom that is imposed on victims”.

Whether you think offences count as harms or not will help determine how free you think speech should be. Regardless of where we draw the line, there will still be room for people to say things that are obnoxious, undiplomatic or insensitive without formal punishment. Having a right to speak won’t mean you are always seen as saying the right thing.

This encourages us to include ideas from deontology and virtue ethics into our thinking. As well as asking what will lead to the best society or which kinds of speech will cause harm, consider different questions. What are our duties to others when it comes to the way we talk? How would a wise or virtuous person use speech?