Limiting Speech Harmful to Others

Using the law for limiting speech harmful to others is necessary, to protect the rights of others, but it can be difficult in practice.

Individuals can bring legal cases against others for libel and slander, as described previously (5.2.4).  The action can bring more unwanted publicity, and cost can be a problem.  There are some types of harm to others, though, that should be protected by national law.

Economic regulations already referred to include prevention of cheating ( and consumer protection (  These form part of the law, and they are examples of limiting speech harmful to others: to protect people’s economic rights, and to protect them from physical harm, respectively.  Suppliers should not be able to use free speech to defend false descriptions of goods and services.

Other people’s rights can also be affected by intimidation.  It can be used to prevent them from voting, for example, or from entering some buildings or streets.  There is a strong case for a legal ban on such bullying, even though it is technically a constraint on the aggressor’s freedom of speech.

Online abuse, by Internet ‘trolls’, has become a serious problem.  Women in particular receive a lot of abuse, which is intended to intimidate them and deter them from free speech.  A Prospect article by Cathy Newman, In 2019 we can defeat the online trolls, noted that “[t]he Labour MP Jess Phillips revealed earlier this year that she had 600 rape threats in a single night”.  Such threats should be illegal, since rape itself is illegal.  There are practical difficulties in identifying some of those responsible, but the attempt should be made – and the Prospect article also made the comment that “we need social media companies to clean up their act. The tech wizards running these behemoths surely have the capacity and algorithms to root out the abusers.”



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/5453a.htm.