Absolute free speech is a myth – get over it already

freedom of speech quote

There is no such thing as absolute free speech. There is always a line that must not be crossed. And it varies for people. The more bigotted the society, the more disparity in the “allowed” speech. The more polarized the society, the more the need to censor speech in the interests of public safety, because the idea of free speech is for all. Powerful voices going on a rampage against certain sections of society is not free speech, because the less powerful voices get drowned out and their right to free speech is violated.

Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins

This arm is my arm (and my wife’s), it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:

“Is not this a free country?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”

“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”

Here civil government comes in to prevent bloodshed, adjust rights, and settle disputes.

John B. Finch

If a polarized society has some people overpowering the voice of others, creating about them a public opinion that can open them to grave harm, then it is not free speech. In my view, the duty of the moderator in order to uphold free speech then becomes creating norms that prevent harm to the less powerful, so that the fundamental freedoms of ALL are upheld.

The concept of free speech is life affirming. It is about freedom from persecution and punishment in expressing an opinion. It is a democratic ideal, that every citizen is able to have their say, and thus influence their country and world to their taste. This is not intended to be a free for all where speech of one is allowed to conquer the other through prevention of “violation” of the right of the louder. Speech of all is intended to be inviolate. Attacks on another are not free speech.

Also, free speech is about your opinions. Your right to say what you want. However, freedom of information is an important part of free speech. Spreading disinformation is anti-freespeech, because disinformation influences free speech for an agenda. A good example here is the objection to spreading rumors. Why should people be arrested at all for spreading rumors about threats to people from the northeast, if their freedom of speech lets them say whatever they want?

If a person shouts “fire” in a crowded pandal, and three die in the ensuing stampede, is that freedom of speech? If this person is arrested or gagged by security guards to prevent harm to others, did they violate his freedom of speech? Was it wrong? In my view, it is not. Similarly, if supporters of a Hindu group continually spread rumors of Pakistan flag being hoisted in Mumbai or Hyderabad, in a country with a long history of communal riots, this is not freedom of speech.

How easy it is to claim freedom of speech for purposes of communal incitement, something which is explicitly illegal in India. How easy it is to play the victim and overturn feeble attempts at enforcing order. How easy it is to fool citizens who have deliberately been kept in the dark on any dialogue on free speech, that any censorship is a violation of free speech.

So why is spam not free speech? Why is it persecuted? Why are spammers blocked, arrested? Why do we not allow sites promoting pedophilia or rape or sites that will steal your passwords? Aren’t phishing sites a demonstration of creativity by some brilliant coder? Why have a censor board at all? Why not show graphic rapes in detail on films? Wouldn’t they sell better in a nation intent on exploiting sexual and power thrills from its women?

It isn’t about whether it is factual or a rumor either. Why don’t news channels show blood streams and dismembered bodies after a terror attack? The “minority community” reporting is intended to prevent communal conflict too, though it ends up making things worse, because political polarization of India is so complete that people see it as a protection of culprits. The need to blame rages and there is no particular preference for safety – particularly for politically interested spectators.

Why do we accept some boundaries and suddenly wake up to others? Why do social media websites have report abuse buttons? Why do they block people violating Terms of Service if whoever is bothered by spammers and abusers can block them anyway?

Why do we not object to admins of social platforms taking steps they deem necessary for the service to be available to all, but deny governments the same right in the face of dead bodies and disinformation that has been tracked to websites or profiles? Why is it so unreasonable to expect those wrongfully blocked to clarify and get unblocked when it comes to government?

There is *always* a line. A line that is drawn with a view to freedoms and tweaked in cases of emergency however needed. When you have people from the northeast from half a dozen cities fleeing, effective or not, the government has the right to take measures it thinks are appropriate – though admittedly the government is not very bright with this. To condemn the censorship as an attack of Freedom of Speech is a fundamental misunderstanding of what Free Speech is.

Freedom of speech in India is iffy at best. If law enforcement worked as advertized, out first amendment and laws on free speech would have been shredded long ago, because the problems would be clear. We began with Freedom of Speech supported freely in the constitution. The First Amendment was a quick assertion of the right to shut people up. Since then it has been downhill. It is currently not legal for you to be blasphemous, offend people, and such abstract things. The government has given itself the power to interpret things at will and ban whatever it wants [read]. And no, this isn’t exclusive to the Congress.

The government prefers the freedom to use its discretion to deny content over making a principled, uniform and clear stand on what specifically is a right and what will not be allowed taking the “right” out of almost every word you can utter. There is nothing illegal about almost any censorship in India, because the laws have been framed so that they can be used to nail anyone. It is by design, and this needs to be brought down to even begin protesting censorship in any legal manner. There has to be explicit defining of what will not be allowed and this has to be as little as possible and the rest has to be freedom of speech – clear line. THIS is what the fight for freedom of speech is about.

Making exceptions to already flimsy laws when they are applied for the reasons like safety of citizens weakens India by making precedents to break laws for “right reasons”, by weakening the struggle for free speech itself by diffusing the practical problems dysfunctional laws create, regardless of which opportunists are in power, regardless of your opinion on how well or badly it is done. If you are a true advocate of Free Speech, then strengthen it by getting faulty laws scrapped or fixed. Even if absolute Free Speech is not possible, it certainly is possible to be explicit on what is free speech and what is a violation of laws and to uphold that meticulously so that people acting in illegal ways running riot and harming the interests of the country are not gagged in an inaccurate and haphazard manner. If everyone knows where the line lies and when it is crossed, there is no ambiguity on why exactly the censorship is due and when it is wrong.

In other words, if Facebook and Twitter had Terms of Service like our Constitution and Laws on Freedom of Speech, you’d find somewhere else to do your speaking. Alas, we can’t unsubscribe from countries, but we CAN do one better – we can fix what doesn’t work in a democracy.

The need for the hour is not to paralyze the government but to show some spine and get laws defined better. And, like improving women’s rights are marked by resistance of those who prefer them silent, right to free speech will too be marked by offenses taken, attacks made and more as those with the power to censor the nation’s narrative fight to retain that control. It isn’t about making exceptions for instances of censorship, but overturning this cart comprehensively.

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5 thoughts on “Absolute free speech is a myth – get over it already”

  1. its not important

    if only you are in a system, only then
    Absolute free speech is a myth. you are bound in social restrains, you are slave to the system. then it cant be no free speech then its just an illusion but if you can work the system then the words have no line.

  2. In my opinion as long as there is equal opportunity for everyone to speak, there’s no need to protect anyone. When you talk of “drowned out”, what are you referring to? Are their blog posts being taken down? Are their SMSs being blocked? Are they not receiving permission to write book, paint etc?

    Absolute free speech is an ideal. The fact that it doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that we stop striving for it. We’ll never have a 100% crime free environment either. But we’ll continue to aim for it just the same.

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