By Campus Watch:
Freedom of speech and expression is a hotly debated topic just now with writers giving up their awards, questions arising on the food we eat, what we watch in our private space etc. While many are arguing for absolute freedom of speech, there are others like the students at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) who are demanding that the administration punish some of their fellow students for ‘expressive behaviour’, alleging that they can’t offend any particular community under the garb of ‘free speech’.
Freedom of speech is defined as the right to express one’s opinion without any hindrance. Should freedom of speech be ‘absolute’ or with ‘reasonable restrictions’? We asked some young people for their opinion on the same:
The greatest trouble of all is defining what constitutes reasonable restrictions. Further, who is this body that will delineate such reasonable restrictions to the masses? There is no doubt that power and freedom go hand in hand. Not only must we be wary of absolute freedom but any claims regarding reasonable restrictions must be open to questioning and criticism. Perhaps it is time to move beyond a debate that dichotomises freedom of speech as either absolute or restricted, but one that examines closely the contexts in which absolute freedom of speech must be guaranteed and in which context must we place restrictions and how.
I think that freedom of speech must always, without any kind of exception, be absolute. If it isn’t absolute, it isn’t ‘freedom’. The clause of ‘reasonable restriction’, by and large, includes many other restrictions as well, so that it never works out. Freedom of speech, thus, must be a no holds bar- only then can constructive debates and discourse on a topic of vital importance develop. A clamp down on the freedom of speech, ‘reasonable restrictions’ notwithstanding, is a very dangerous bet for a developing democracy. Only through free and flowing discussions can newer and fresher ideas come to fore- restricting them under certain Acts and Sections would yield nothing but a condensed atmosphere, one which is marked by fear, anger and negativeness.
Freedom is supposed to be enjoyed by people. This is despite their class, stature, wealth or level of influence within a community. That is why it is called freedom in the first place. Limiting any freedom therefore changes its very essence. That, I believe, is the fundamental truth. The freedom to express one’s opinion or view sits within the same paradigm. Any limitation of any sort changes the form, nature and structure of that which we often deceive ourselves into clarifying as freedom of speech. It is said that one man’s freedom begins where another’s ends. Thus, we appreciate the reality that limitations are bound to control the enjoyment of our various freedoms. As Lord Acton indicated and has been so famously and widely quoted, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Man, being the social being he has accepted to be, can and probably will never understand any form of limitations ascribed to any freedom if he is led to understand that that freedom is meant to be absolute. So, while I believe in the essence of an absolute freedom of speech, I acknowledge that individuals are born, socialised and exist within various social paradigms in which exist several flaws; all of which make it impossible for such freedoms to be made absolute.
Yes, freedom of speech should be absolute. We should not give anybody a chance to define ‘reasonable restrictions’. But ‘hate speech’ should strictly be restricted, as it infringes on free speech of others.
‘Restrictions’ are not desirable in freedom of speech, but when we add the word ‘reasonable’ to it, isn’t it better than ‘absolute’ liberty? We must have the power, the freedom to raise our voice against inept state of affairs, but one certainly won’t wish to act as the instigator of an unrest, affecting the sinless public. The word ‘reasonable’ simply demands for control over one’s speech, which is pretty valid. Consider our day-to-day activities. Do we just blabber out all things we feel about, without even judging our environment and the after-effects of our words on the listeners and, in general, society? This doesn’t mean we should refrain from putting forward our own concerns, but there is a particular technique for everything you do, which may yield the best outcome. You won’t obviously fancy an Akbaruddin Owaisi in each and every street of our country.
Freedom of speech can only be absolute or it has no meaning. The moment a restriction is placed on it, we accept that there can be grounds for abrogation of that right, and this leads ultimately to a much narrowed down freedom. The constitution of India in itself puts very few restrictions on this freedom. However, a regulation of speech has meant that governments have fought to work around Article 19 and restrict as much freedom as they can. Some of these restrictions have, in fact, been inherited from the colonial times in the Indian Penal Code. Section 66A of the IT Act (now repealed) went a step further and even made offensiveness of speech a crime. This is not surprising, however, on the part of any government. The way, however, for those who wish to work towards more freedom is to work for legislations that regulate violations (as stated in Article 19(2)) instead. For instance, a progressive way would be to regulate when one can overstep the restrictions listed in Article 19(2).
A sensitive, self-imposed restriction on the manner of expression, not expression per se, isn’t a bad idea, and sometimes even a necessity. While one is entitled to hold any opinion one wants, it is often a responsible thing to do to “express” dissent in a manner respectful of other pluralistic sensibilities. While the manner of expression should be judiciously self-regulated, any curtailment of expression, is certainly not desirable.
In my opinion, Freedom of Speech should not be absolute. The very premise of ‘absolute freedom’ seems problematic as it could result in thoughtless or wrongful utilization of the right. This may subsequently lead to gradual disintegration of harmony in the social fabric of a nation. In any case, enjoyment of any right in a given society is inevitably limited by the duty of recognizing and respecting similar rights of others. The right, therefore, must include a set of ‘reasonable restrictions’ which should take into cognizance the diverse ethnic and cultural praxes of a markedly heterogeneous country like ours. Most importantly, however, the ‘reasonable’ sub-clauses ought to be consistent in application and binding on all individuals of the society, irrespective of their position in the power hierarchy.
The whole idea of ‘putting reasonable restrictions on everyone’s freedom to stop one’s freedom in getting way of another’s freedom’ may be possible to apply to everything in the realm of liberty except that of the freedom of expression. One’s freedom of expression will always foster another’s freedom of expression and not the way we are made to believe. In this matter, the reasonability of restrictions is as problematic as the authority that gets to decide what is reasonable and what is not. Most people fail to realise that the whole idea of putting ‘reasonable’ restrictions on everyone’s freedom of expression is actually a tool in the hands of the state to exert and extend their authority upon the people in the name of national security and unity as defined in Article 19(2) of the Indian constitution. In order to let state decide what we should express and what we should not, we are made to believe that absolute freedom of expression will disrupt the harmony and land us in chaos.
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