Freedom of Expression: Where Do We Draw the Line?

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

Censored via Wikimedia Commons

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?

Freedom on the Net via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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5 thoughts on “Freedom of Expression: Where Do We Draw the Line?

  1. This story is very intriguing while also very disturbing. Although I understand your point in regards to the way Mill would see or interpret this, I would argue that he might not be in favor of Baker. One of Mill’s most important points is that the individual does not harm others, so while Baker may not being directly harming anyone, he may in fact be harming the girl’s psyche with these disturbing posts. This could make the girl feel uncomfortable not only in the presence of Baker but in the presence of others because she may feel that they want to do similar things. While this is a rather abstract way of viewing the situation, I would say that Mill would agree because the girl’s “ability to pursue her life as before has been significantly curtailed.” Not to mention the fact that this court case more than likely brought a financial burden onto his family.

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  2. Thank you for bringing this story to light. While I do understand your argument, I do have to disagree. I think a major point you are missing in your argument may be the fact that this boy’s actions actually caused a great deal of harm to others, particularly the young woman who was singled out for this very disgusting act. Using her real name could not only draw unwanted attention to her, but by having this very specific, disgusting story written about her, she probably had to deal with a lot of mental harm and concerns about her safety. Therefore, Mill would agree with the actions taken against this boy because his actions harmed the liberty of another. Her name tagged to this story could follow her for quite a while and this would harm her ability to pursue her own individual interests. This boy’s actions had a lasting harm on this young woman and because of this, Mill would approve of the actions taken against this boy.

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  3. A person can spend their whole life building a reputation, but saying one wrong thing can ruin what they’ve spent years building. This has always been the case, but it has become even more prevalent of an issue in recent years with the continued development of technology.

    A person can say something and within an hours time, it could be half way around the world. Yes, it is our right to speak freely, but we must also consider the repercussions of our remarks. For the people in the world who don’t really know you, they can tell a lot about the kind of person you are by the things you post on social media or say in an interview.

    Again, Hobbes would say it is our right to speak our minds, but we must be careful with what we say.

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    1. I meant Mill.. As long as we are not causing harm to another, Mill would say it is our right to act freely. This boy caused lasting harm on the woman though, so I don;t think he would condone it.

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  4. As stated in the other comments, this post brings a very complicated/ disturbing story to light. As a girl reading this post, my immediate reaction is disgust. I can imagine being the position of Baker’s classmate and feeling fearful that this “story” held elements of truth and my life and safety were actually being threatened. However, on the other hand, Baker asserts that this web post was just a “sick” “story.” As citizens in America, we have the right to say whatever we want. So according to the constitution, Baker should be able to say whatever he wants, right? I think brining Mill into the story creates an interesting controversy. Mill Believes in the greatest good for the greatest number, but also believes in the harm policy, or the least amount of harm to least people producing the greatest. In this story, it at the surface, seems to be a one to one issue where no greater good benefits or no greater population suffers. But, looking more closely, Bakers actions, while constitutional, negatively effected a whole campus. His story undoubtedly made other students feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Thus, his expulsion is totally justifiably in Mill’s ideology.

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