Speaking of Freedom of Speech

In my view, freedom of speech is a non-negotiable right that free people have. It is a natural right, not a right that is artificially conjured. Human dignity is lost when the right to express what you think is restricted. I regret the fact that Indians don’t have genuine freedom of speech. Here’s a piece I wrote for the June issue of India Currents. Excerpt:

Publishing anything that the government is likely to take serious offense to is akin to publishing an invitation to officialdom to please come and shut down the business on some pretext or the other; and also to audit the accounts; and to get an income tax raid done on your home immediately; and file a few cases against your business which the courts will take decades to settle.

For the record, I reproduce the full piece below.

Speaking of Freedom of Speech

Many of my NRIs friends, generally a well-informed group, are often surprised to learn that their resident Indian cousins don’t have the kind of freedom of speech they routinely enjoy in the US. They assume quite reasonably that in India too, just like in the US — both celebrated as exemplars of robust democracy — there are constitutional guarantees against governmental restrictions on the freedom of speech and the press. This is unfortunately not so.

Some time ago, while discussing the details of the content the editorial staff of an Indian newspaper would expect in a column, I was told that I was free to write about anything I wanted. But I was cautioned to stay clear of any criticism of the powers that be. Not just in general terms, I was told not to find fault with two specific politicians in power, whom I cannot name here for obvious reasons (privacy being only one of them.)

That happens in India but will not happen in the US. Here’s why.

The difference arises from the constitutions of the two. The First Amendment to the US Constitution (the first of 10 items that is the US “Bill of Rights”) states, in part, that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .” The important bit is that the US constitution does not grant the freedom of speech because that freedom is not for it to grant or withhold. The freedom of speech exists prior to the constitution; the amendment merely recognizes that fact by explicitly prohibiting any law that may tamper with it.

As it happens, the First Amendment to the Indian constitution, introduced by Mr J. Nehru in 1950 also, among other matters, deals with the freedom of speech and of the press. There are two major distinctions, though. First, I cannot quote the Indian amendment in its entirety here. The US 1st amendment is only 45 words long and is in plain English; the Indian counterpart is around 1750 words of impenetrable legalese.

Second, the Indian amendment grants the right to free speech. What the constitution grants, the constitution can also take away. In the finer details it says in essence that Indians are free to speak or write whatever they wish — provided the government agrees with it.

In short, you may speak or write admiringly about the emperor’s new clothes but you cannot point out that perhaps the emperor is naked. In fact, you are tacitly urged by the emperor to write encomiums on the brilliance of his attire.

You may ask, what does “tacitly urged” mean here? It means that when money speaks, you don’t need to. The Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has a very, very large budget. (Why India has to have what amounts to a ministry of government propaganda is a matter for another day.) Currently it’s about Rs 4000 crores or about US$ 600 million a year. That’s the central budget; I presume the states have their own I&B budgets. Part of that humongous amount is spent on government advertisements in newspapers. Ruling politicians have the power to financially ruin any newspaper by withholding ads.

Even cognitively challenged people — and people who run newspapers are not stupid — know which side the bread is buttered, if you get my drift. But even if you lay that carrot aside (pardon the mixed metaphor), you have to mind that heavy stick. There are literally thousands of pages of rules and regulations that apply to all kinds of organizations, including publishing. No one really knows everything about what they are but it is quite easy to run afoul of some regulation or the other, if an inquiry was to be initiated against any business.

Publishing anything that the government is likely to take serious offense to is akin to publishing an invitation to officialdom to please come and shut down the business on some pretext or the other; and also to audit the accounts; and to get an income tax raid done on your home immediately; and file a few cases against your business which the courts will take decades to settle.

The freedom of speech and of the press forms part of the foundation of a free society. The other rights such as the right to choose who shall be entrusted with governance — democracy and all that — are rendered meaningless if one is ignorant about the deeds and misdeeds of those who govern. The search for good governance is bound to be fruitless if one has to do it blindfolded, which is what it amounts to when people lack the freedom to examine the government critically, fearlessly and frankly.

Perhaps Indians need to fight and win some real freedom, and not just be satisfied with dubious nominal freedoms that are granted only provisionally and exercised rarely for fear of government reprisals.

Author: Atanu Dey


4 thoughts on “Speaking of Freedom of Speech”

  1. Are there any limits to freedom-of-speech? Or is freedom-of-speech absolute? If you agree to restrictions on free speech, I will like to know the basis of those restrictions.
    I find the following questions interesting.
    1. Should I have the freedom to utter lies?
    2. Does freedom-of-speech actually mean freedom-of-true-speech?
    3. Should I have freedom to telecast the truth of an ongoing terrorist-hostage situation?
    4. Should I have the freedom to consume drugs and demand narcotics-free-trade?

    My answer to these are: No, Yes, No, Maybe
    These answers indicate that I am not a votary of absolute-free-speech. I find that disturbing..

    Eagerly awaiting your response Atanu.


    1. Freedom of speech, in my opinion, is an absolute. There must not be any restrictions on speech. Under no circumstances must anyone be prevented from speaking (which includes writing, or any other form of communicating ideas, thoughts, etc.)

      Q. Should one be allowed to lie?
      A. First we have to define what it means “to lie.” If I say, “The sky is bright pink”, is that a lie? Certainly it is because it is obviously blue except due to some atmospheric conditions it appears to be a bright pink. Whether it is blue or not is a matter of evidence. What ever be the fact, the mere expression of that lie (if that be so) is harming no one.

      Is it a lie for me to say that I think Facebook sucks? You may disagree but it’s my opinion. I should be free to express my opinion.

      What if I say, “Ashok is a rapist.” Is that a lie? Depends on whether Ashok has in fact committed rape. Should I be allowed to make that claim? Yes. Is Ashok damaged by my claim? Yes, if indeed he’s innocent. If so, then he has recourse to making me pay for libel. But a priori I should not be prevented from making that claim.

      Should I be allowed to shout “fire” at any point? Yes. But if there is no fire and my raising of a false alarm causes a stampede, I am liable for damages caused. What if I raise the alarm that the house is on fire, and indeed it is, am I liable for the broken leg of someone who panics and instead of taking the stairs, jumps out of a second floor window?

      All these are specific cases that raise interesting questions. But the principle of free speech is unaffected by corner cases.

      The principle of free speech arises from a deeper philosophical position — that of the freedom of the individual. It is not an utilitarian argument even though free speech has immense social utility. I will not go into those bits here.

      Human fallibility is another practical reason why freedom of speech is an absolute. No human is all-wise and all-knowing. So who is to judge whether what I say is wrong or right? Who are you going to put in charge to decide what should be allowed and what disallowed when it comes to speech?

      Q. Should speech that helps terrorists be allowed?
      A. Sure. But remember that helping terrorists may make you liable to damage from the victims of terrorists. So whether you do it by speech (by radioing them facts that help them) or by supplying them with ammunition, you are involved in a criminal activity.

      Free speech allows you to say what you want but it does not mean that it protects you from any criminal activity you undertake. You are free to speak what you will but you are not free from the consequences that may follow.

      Q. Should people have the freedom to consume drugs?
      A. Sure. If I want to ingest something, I don’t see why anyone else should prevent me from that. I am a free person, not a slave or a serf. If I wish to buy drugs (legal, illegal, harmful, beneficial, whatever), and someone is willing to sell them to me, I don’t see how a third party has any rights to interfere.

      The problems that humanity faces are many, and each of them have many causes. The majority of these, I think, have one thing in common: one of the major causal factors is needless interference in the affairs of individuals by third parties. I say to those stupid busybodies, “Fuck off. It’s none of your business.”


  2. “You are free to speak what you will but you are not free from the consequences that may follow.”

    This line nails it for me. This line is the revelation I was hoping for. However, I need some time to apply the line-of-thought on multiple scenarios and become comfortable with it.

    Thank you…. Professor.


    1. You are welcome. But for the record, I am not a professor. Unlike some people, I don’t care to pretend to be what I am not. In India, especially, some quite famous people like to call themselves “Dr” when in fact they don’t have a doctoral degree.


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