Walking the fine line on free speech

Individual citizens determine what our society is going to be like

Yusra Jabeen July 04, 2015

In the last 15 years of my moral growth and development of the sense of judgment, I have come across many stories and incidents that have involved two or more people berating each other over a bone of contention. The idea of freedom of speech has often been cooked into a sociopolitical hot-potato among people all around the world. It has involved events ranging from offensive spoken words and symbolic demonstrations, to written or published works in print and on the internet.

The New York Times reported on May 20, 2010 that the Pakistani authorities had banned Facebook, and approximately 450 web pages as they contained “objectionable, sacrilegious content”. These sites expressed prejudiced and resentful views directed towards a particular group of people, in this case Muslims.

Though the ban on Facebook was lifted a week later, the idea of censoring views raised a lot of eyebrows among the advocates of freedom of speech. On a public forum such as the internet, it takes a few minutes to change a rational argument into an emotional war of words. Too often, it becomes a knockout competition to prove ‘I am right and you are wrong’. Thus, the two-way street of tolerance gets clogged and people having conflicting views end up feeling hurt, enraged and ambushed by the fire of heated words.

For that reason, some people argue that any speech or expression that incites hatred or prejudice towards a particular race, gender, ethnicity, cast, religion or any other group should be restricted. However, the proponents of restriction on speech fail to acknowledge that restricting speech puts all participants in society in a precarious situation. It means that anything other than what most people recognise as acceptable expression would be termed ‘hate speech’. The majority would rule and people would lose the right to criticise.

“Individual citizens determine what our society is going to be like,” said Murray Mollard, policy director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, “and that requires unfettered access to all ideas.” So who decides what is hate speech and how? To deem any expression as ‘harmful’ for society is a very risky job and at the same time very subjective and relative. Different groups have different ideas as to what constitutes offensive speech, therefore, all speech must be protected. Ensuring the right to express is how revolutions are started, therefore, this right must be valued.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th, 2015.

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