I am one of the vocal advocates of individual rights. I value free speech. And every so often, I find attempts for many things (usually political) trying to pass as free speech. The Aditi Restaurant bill is one of those. To make a long story short, a restaurant in Mumbai had this bill, which infuriated the Congress, and youth Congress workers mobbed the place and either forced it to close down or cops closed it down.
This has naturally led to a highly predictable social media war against the Congress, with Free Speech activists mushrooming everywhere objecting to this silencing of the restaurant’s right to put whatever they want on their bill.
I don’t call this free speech, but a highly political stunt and am furious at the creeping political hostility in casual public spaces. I most certainly don’t think it is appropriate for services that are open to the public at large to get into statements of political sarcasm on official stationery – particularly when it is factually incorrect that anyone in the UPA has called eating money a necessity.
I have my reasons as follows:
- Official stationery of a business is different from your personal blog or Twitter feed. It expresses the view of the business. If the view is one that makes a factually incorrect statement – however deserved the anger underlying it may be – then it is defamation. While laws for defamation are used more to protect the poor than the rich, the fact is that the law in itself is not wrong. It is also not against free speech as the ignorance on Twitter claims. If you can prove that what you said is true, or at least that you reasonably believed it to be true, it is not defamation. A lawyer will probably explain this better, but the bottom line is, official stationery has no room for creative exaggerations in insult, and the bill was flat out wrong.
- It is harmful for society at large for such polarization to be allowed to exist. If this goes without comment, there will be other establishments making defamatory comments about other political parties in retaliation, then counter retaliation, till the whole public sphere is tainted with political hostility that rarely ever serves the common man in the best of times.
- This logic of writing whatever you want on your own bill does not work when a customer who has already eaten food has no way of avoiding your bill. You have a political statement to make, make it upfront. Put it on your menu so whoever thinks your restaurant is in bad taste can walk out before they have eaten your food and then been served with what they see is an insult. Of course with the same logic, you will also get a lot of customers who like what you said and always eat at your place and you can be known as the adda for local thugs – which is what foot soldiers of most parties are, while other restaurants follow your path and then a few sane ones take pride in being apolitical sanctuaries where you can eat without being insulted, whoever you are.
- I do understand that restaurant owners are angry over extra charges for AC dining and have direct and relevant anger against government.
The idea of free speech also includes that the audience can choose not to hear. The bill AFTER eating cannot be avoided.
Not only the bill cannot be avoided, but having eaten, the customer must pay, regardless of if he finds it offensive. This is imposition of a political view, not expression.
Thus, I don’t call that crap bill Free Speech. If Congress workers attacked restaurant and forced it to close, they were wrong. If they only protested and cops shut down the restaurant, then I think Congress was well within their rights with their protest. Protest is a fundamental right in India anyway, regardless of how we treat protesters.
I am getting a lot of comments on Twitter, so I will update with any more points that may strike me as relevant.