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Unwilling Avatars: Harassment, Idealism, and Liberty in Cyberspace
Unformatted Document Text:  DRAFT: PLEASE DO NOT CITE OR CIRCULATE WITHOUT PERMISSION Franks 26 society, and whether a “marketplace” of ideas can produce truth in any case, are serious and important questions. 102 This Article does not intend to review all the objections to the concept of the marketplace of ideas. Rather, this Article suggests that while Mill does indeed provide a great deal of insight into the debate over cyber harassment, this is precisely because his analysis of liberty and harm is far more sophisticated than suggested by a reactionary and simplistic invocation of the marketplace of ideas. The way cyber idealists misunderstand Mill‟s concept of liberty tracks the way they confuse liberty and license discussed in the last section – namely, they get the current state of affairs wrong. Cyberspace idealists assume that cyberspace always-already was a paradise that now needs only to be defended. But what Mill offers in On Liberty is first and foremost a diagnosis of what is wrong with the state of things as they are. It is through recognition of the current wrongs that he fashions his recommendations for safeguarding liberty. Cyberspace idealists, when they invoke “free speech” or the “marketplace of ideas” as slogans, forget this diagnostic aspect. Mill argues that we need to honor principles of free speech precisely because speech is so often unequally accessible – because so many individuals and groups are denied the speech and liberty that others enjoy. 103 Inasmuch as Mill claimed that the best answer to bad speech was more speech, he understood that this meant changing the conditions under which certain individuals are silenced and intimidated – not only by the state, but (sometimes even more despotically) by society itself. 104 Indeed, free speech advocates who maintain that we need only be concerned with the government‟s interference with free speech – who seem to think only the government can interfere with free speech – can hardly claim Mill as a proponent of this view. To the contrary, Mill was in some ways even more concerned about the way that the majority could exercise tyranny in society than he was concerned about the same in government. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things in which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such 102 See, e.g., C ATHARINE M AC K INNON , O NLY W ORDS (1996); C ASS R. S UNSTEIN , D EMOCRACY AND THE P ROBLEM OF F REE S PEECH (1970); S TANLEY F ISH , T HERE ‟ S N O S UCH T HING A S F REE S PEECH : A ND I T ‟ S A G OOD T HING , T OO (1994); M ARI J. M ATSUDA ET AL , W ORDS T HAT W OUND : C RITICAL R ACE T HEORY , A SSAULTIVE S PEECH , AND THE F IRST A MENDMENT (1993). 103 M ILL , supra note __ at __ 104 Id. at __

Authors: Franks, Mary Anne.
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DRAFT: PLEASE DO NOT CITE OR CIRCULATE WITHOUT PERMISSION 
 
Franks 26 
 
society, and whether a “marketplace” of ideas can produce truth in any case, 
are serious and important  questions.
102
     
This Article does not intend to review all the objections to the concept 
of  the  marketplace  of  ideas.  Rather,  this  Article  suggests  that  while  Mill 
does  indeed  provide  a  great  deal  of  insight  into  the  debate  over  cyber 
harassment, this is precisely because his analysis of liberty and harm is far 
more  sophisticated  than  suggested  by  a  reactionary  and  simplistic 
invocation  of  the  marketplace  of  ideas.  The  way  cyber  idealists 
misunderstand Mill‟s concept of liberty tracks the way they confuse liberty 
and license discussed in the last section – namely, they get the current state 
of  affairs  wrong.  Cyberspace  idealists  assume  that  cyberspace  always-
already was a paradise that now needs only to be defended.  But what Mill 
offers in On Liberty is first and foremost a diagnosis of what is wrong with 
the  state  of  things  as  they  are.    It  is  through  recognition  of  the  current 
wrongs  that  he  fashions  his  recommendations  for  safeguarding  liberty. 
Cyberspace idealists, when they invoke  “free speech” or the “marketplace 
of ideas” as slogans, forget this diagnostic aspect.  Mill argues that we need 
to  honor  principles  of  free  speech  precisely  because  speech  is  so  often 
unequally accessible – because so many individuals and groups are denied 
the speech and liberty that others enjoy.
103
  Inasmuch as Mill claimed that 
the  best  answer  to  bad  speech  was  more  speech,  he  understood  that  this 
meant changing the conditions under which certain individuals are silenced 
and  intimidated  –  not  only  by  the  state,  but  (sometimes  even  more 
despotically) by society itself.
104
  
Indeed,  free  speech  advocates  who  maintain  that  we  need  only  be 
concerned with the government‟s interference with free speech – who seem 
to  think  only  the  government  can  interfere  with  free  speech  –  can  hardly 
claim Mill as a proponent of this view. To the contrary, Mill was in some 
ways even more concerned about the way that the majority could exercise 
tyranny in society than he was concerned about the same in government.   
 
Society  can  and  does  execute  its  own  mandates;  and  if  it 
issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at 
all in things in which it ought not to meddle, it practices a 
social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political 
oppression,  since,  though  not  usually  upheld  by  such 
                                                      
102
 See, e.g., C
ATHARINE 
M
AC
K
INNON
,
 
O
NLY 
W
ORDS
 (1996); C
ASS 
R.
 
S
UNSTEIN
D
EMOCRACY AND THE 
P
ROBLEM OF 
F
REE 
S
PEECH 
(1970); S
TANLEY 
F
ISH
, T
HERE
N
S
UCH 
T
HING 
A
F
REE 
S
PEECH
:
 
A
ND 
I
T
S A 
G
OOD 
T
HING
,
 
T
OO
 (1994); M
ARI 
J.
 
M
ATSUDA ET 
AL
, W
ORDS 
T
HAT 
W
OUND
:
 
C
RITICAL 
R
ACE 
T
HEORY
,
 
A
SSAULTIVE 
S
PEECH
,
 AND THE 
F
IRST 
A
MENDMENT 
(1993).  
103
 M
ILL
, supra note __ at __ 
104
 
Id. at
 
__ 


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