J. S. Mill may not have invented the idea of free speech, but his influential essay, On Liberty, certainly established it as a cornerstone of our political system. Here is the essence of his argument for protecting it:

..the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.


As I read this, the emphasis is not on its libertarian slant, as is so often connected to liberty, but on its epistemic implications. Implicit in the idea of free speech is its importance in arriving at the “truth,” as the context for action. Truth in this sense is not limited to the kind of facts about the natural world that science reveals, but, rather, extends to truths about the social world. There have been periods where even facts about the natural world were proffered in the same epistemic sense as facts produced through accepted scientific methods. A small group of flat-earthers, who deny that the Earth is round, still exists today. In the present political climate, much larger groups claim that vaccines do not work, that climate change is a hoax, and other claims of “scientific” knowledge.

These folks are not likely to change their views after a “collision with error,” because they will invariably avoid any such collisions by some diversionary tactic. The science-deniers are not interested in truth-finding, but in the libertarian aspects of free speech, that is, being able to say anything one chooses, short, perhaps, of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Even so, there are consequences to denying what proper science tells us. Truth, as a description of nature, determines the outcome of human actions, in spite of any protestations otherwise, for example, anti-vaxxers interfere with efforts to reduce or eliminate the spread of infectious diseases,

Mill’s argument for free speech presumes that truth is essential in establishing the context for [consensual] action. If we act according to beliefs that do not fit either nature laws or socially-constructed rules, the outcomes will, in general, fail to satisfy the intent of the actions, and, may also produce unanticipated or unintended consequences. Consent is foundational to the US, appearing in The Declaration of Independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .

Another part of the declaration quoted above is the claim that all men (sic) are created equal. This statement unfolds to reveal a much broader sense of consent in all human activities. Equality requires that all humans must be treated with dignity by others, respecting their individuality and uniqueness. And, in turn, this means that whatever actions are performed at the request of others must be consensual, avoiding domination or coercion. But such consensus requires that the actors share a particular set of beliefs about the worldly system in which the action is occurring.

The German sociologist, Jurgen Habermas, has developed a “Theory of Communicative Action,” as a formal way of stating this, explicating the common context which must be established as a prerequisite for consensual action. Communication prior to the action is a critical part of the process of getting to some agreement on the truth. And that is the key to understanding the criticality of Mill’s notion of free speech. Habermas is particularly concerned with the conditions under which action takes place in a consensual, cooperative, non-coercive manner, that is, how language can function as “a medium of unhindered understanding.”

Within this model, actors are conceived of as seeking an understanding in regard to some practical situation confronting them, in order to coordinate their actions consensually. Reaching an understanding requires ‘a cooperative process of interpretation aimed at attaining intersubjectively recognized definitions of situations.’… one must assume a more complex competence on the part of actors than is postulated in other models of action. Within the communicative model, actors are envisioned to relate simultaneously to all three of the aforementioned worlds (objective, social, and subjective). Moreover, they can relate to them reflectively in the sense that they have the competence to differentiate the three types of relations and select one or the other as the most appropriate for interpreting a given situation and working out an agreement on a common definition of it. Thus, the three modes of world relations together constitute a ‘commonly imputed system of coordinates,’ which actors have at their mutual disposal to aid them in understanding one another.

Actors within the communicative model are . . . accorded . . . the competence to assess the rationality or irrationality of one another’s actions according to all three of the respective sets of criteria (truth/success; normative legitimacy; and truthfulness/authenticity) which are implied by the different possible world-relations.

Habermas goes beyond the general ontological sense of seeing the world revealed in a specific way, through the raising up and establishing of the three specific sets of validity claims, plus a fourth related to comprehensibility. These claims show up as assessments made by a listener assessing the validity of a speaker’s claims in the domains of communicative rationality: truth, truthfulness or sincerity, legitimacy, (and comprehensibility)

The assessment of truth relates to the objective reality context of the action being contemplated. This family of claims deals with objective rationality; the effective choice of means to some end otherwise specified. Such a truth claim is always at the base of grounding for a request; the requester’s intentions are buried in it. It is a set of assessments pertaining to the future that would show up as a consequence of taking the actions proposed.

In the general social situation prevailing today, the second category or truthfulness claim is frequently questioned, often in association with offers or promises made in response to requests, and may be completely absent in extended breakdowns where the identity of one or more of the parties includes a record of previous broken promises. Truthfulness corresponds to a subjective world that Habermas mentions, that is the mindset of the speaker. Claims about sincerity, reliability, or competence are related forms. Truthfulness generally is an assessment about an assertion being made in the present; sincerity and competence are assessments about the speaker’s intention and ability to follow through in the future. Habermas claims that this domain belongs to the subjective or dramaturgical dimension of rationality. It is connected with the inner set of intentions and cognitive states of the party or parties who are expected to be the actors in the pending action.

The third class of validity claims, legitimacy, forms the basis of much social, as opposed to personal conflict. Legitimacy relates to the intersubjective domain and largely includes assessments about the other party’s sharing of concerns or cares of the listener.

A fourth class of claims, that of comprehensibility, is often added to the three discussed above. This claim is fundamental; one cannot enter into a conversation leading to action without understanding the language itself or the conventional idiom that the speaker is using.  Comprehensibility also may enter into complex technical arguments where the parties speak in jargon and technical distinctions. But it is also an important factor in ordinary conversations where the parties may take for granted that the others have understood the words they use.

Such conditions as Habermas envisions are those that can support non-coercive responses to both public and private propositions. They do not guarantee that individuals will accept such requests, for example, to enter into a new working relationship or purchase greener products, but they set up the necessary conditions for that to happen without explicit coercion. It should be straightforward, even after the sparse discussion of Habermas’ argument, to visualize the kinds of conditions under which the unhindered or undistorted flow of speech, including claims and counter claims, could lead to understanding and agreement and subsequent consensual action. However, conflicts over just such claims are the central experience of much recent history.

All of this is relevant to the current controversies over free speech on college campuses. The necessity to support free speech follows directly from the Mill quote. Universities are places where the students build their stock of beliefs, both objective and subjective, about the world. If they are unable to “exchange error for truth,” they will be unable to join into the social life of their societies as they will lack the context for assessing the validity of Habermas’s set of claims.

1. Habermas, J. (1984). The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 1, Reason and the Rationalization of Society (T. McCarthy, Trans. Vol. 1). Boston: Beacon Press.
2. Habermas, J. (1987). The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 2. Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.
3. Mill, J. S. (1869). On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green.

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