Freedom of Speech – Defamation, Sedition, etc.

Pondering on the free speech

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Right of free speech

Mains level : Paper 2- Free speech and violence

The article discusses the issues with blaming the expression of free speech for the violence inflicted by the people opposed to the ideas.

Context

  • The beheading of a teacher in France has brought to the fore the issue of free speech.
  • It is argued that there is a need to respect people’s religion and not be provocative in the aftermath of the gruesome killing.

Issues related to free speech

1) Free-speecher’s burden

  • The fact that a barbaric, crazy man can either get offended or inspired by either of the conflicting ideas cannot be a “free-speecher’s” burden.
  • Should any protest or campaign be mindful of a potential violent twist that may be given to their ideas?
  • Should a causal link between the expression of “offensive ideas” and sufferance of bodies allow violent zealots to hold the right to ransom?

2) Existence of ideas in person

  • Ideas have no real, independent existence outside of the bodies in which they inhere.
  • Had ideas lived autonomously, independent of the bodies and minds that carry them, ideas would not die.
  • But we don’t. And the reason is that some ideas die or weaken over time.
  • They become anomalous and discredited either because they are disputed scientifically or because they are contested vigorously and passionately till an anachronistic idea is defeated.

3) Ideas could be good or bad

  • In the conflicting terrain of ideas, lies the kernel of social change.
  • Ideas could be good or bad.
  • How else, except through a conflict of ideas, do women contest patriarchy and push back on received gendered ideas of womanhood?

Issues with arguing on free-speech outside context

  • First, as academic Ghassan Hage summed up in his Facebook post: Truth also needs to have its ethics.
  • You may be truthful, but unethical.
  • The beheading of French teacher requires us to dwell on not just any killing but the barbarism behind it.
  • To dwell instead on the genealogies and causes of violent behaviour is bad ethics, for it ends up being nothing more than an apologia for violence.
  • Second, it’s bad politics.
  • The right to free speech empowers and enables many marginalised lives.
  • It is a basic right that preconditions the realisation of other rights.
  • So basic that it enables the weak and the oppressed to rise against their oppressors.

Conclusion

In any case, free speech is restrained by the state through its many criteria of “reasonableness”. To further circumscribe it by burdening it with plausible violent appropriations, or with historical conditionalities, is to feed the logic of violence against freedom of expression.

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