Today, in the information age, everyday people have the power to reach wide audiences nationally and internationally at very little expense. Individual voices have more meaning. If you post your thoughts/ opinions online in the forms of blogging, comments or social media pages, almost everybody has access to it. Think about the role that social media and the web had in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Young people used the web to start a revolution. The web and one’s voice are very powerful tools that have the potential to create drastic changes in our world. Not only does the internet allow for people to have their voices heard, but it also gives them a lot more freedom to say what they want to say because they are hidden behind the safety of their computer screen.
A few years ago, an undergraduate student here at the University of Michigan by the name of Jake Baker demonstrated how the Information Age has brought up new issues in regard to freedom of speech. Jake was a regular poster to an alt.sex group where he posted disturbing sexual fantasies that included the rape, torture and murder of women. In one of his posts, he wrote a story about one of his classmates, using her real name. In this
story, according to The Ethical Spectacle, he “included a disclaimer, stating that what he wrote was “sick stuff” and a “story”.” News of this post quickly got back to University of Michigan administration and Jake Baker was expelled for not adhering to the code of ethics. Federal police raided his dorm room and arrested him. Baker was indicted in federal court for threatening his classmate, however the charges were later dismissed because there was not enough evidence to conclude that he was actually going to act on these writings.
This incident became national news and created a lot of controversy. Many people believed that it was a violation of freedom of speech to expel Jake Baker based on a story. Others believed that he deserved to be punished at the federal level. So how exactly would John Stuart Mill believe that this situation should be handled?
John Stuart Mill in his book, On Liberty, states that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Was the University of Michigan preventing harm to others by expelling Jake Baker? Could the United States Government prevent harm to others through indicting him? In my opinion, John Stuart Mill would have responded ‘no’ to both of these questions. Although what Jake Baker posted online was clearly disturbing and immoral, he did not explicitly threaten anyone. Therefore, John Stuart Mill would conclude that Jake Baker should not have been indicted at the federal level or expelled from the University of Michigan based on this story.