Freedom of speech, expression, and the press is a distinctive mark of civilization. It distinguishes — and indicates the degree of civilization achieved among — the nations of the world. Nations that valued the Enlightenment traditions of the likes of Kant and Voltaire prospered and became culturally (not to mention militarily) powerful enough to profoundly impact, and indeed create, the modern world.
Just compare where the Islamic nations are in relation to the Western nations in terms of social, cultural and economic well-being. The Islamic nations fail miserably. They languish in the bottom of the heap suffering terrorism and imposing it on the rest of the world. Part of the explanation must be that their civilization lacks the freedom of speech and expression.
“Congress shall make no law …”
And consider that the most powerful nation in the world, the United States of America, is what it is partly because of the wisdom of its Founding Fathers who included the critically important First Amendment in the “Bill of Rights” of the US Constitution which says, in part, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”.
Say what you may (and you may say whatever pleases you) but I am a freedom of speech fundamentalist. It is non-negotiable, it is off the table, it is not for sale, trade, barter or exchange. I reserve the right to say whatever I wish, and I defend your right to say whatever you wish. And equally importantly, I reserve the right to choose to hear, read and watch whatever others freely choose to express in whatever form. The operative word is choose. You choose to speak, and I choose to hear, without compulsion on either side.
I recognize no authority over me that will dictate to me what I may say or listen to, read, write or watch. I will resist any government that attempts to take away my right to free speech, and the corresponding right to listen to the free speech of others.
Now that I have expressed my position on the matter, let me get down to why I did so.
Freedom of Speech
The internet is a virtually endless source of amazing speech (broadly defined) in all its infinite variety. It would have been unimaginable just a few decades ago that so many hundreds of millions would have the ability to express themselves to the rest of the world so cheaply and easily. Anyone with an internet connection (and that means at least a couple of billion) can use any of a variety of free services to broadcast whatever they wish to express.
Billions have that ability to say what they want to the rest of the world but that does not mean that they are all permitted to do so. All Islamic countries, and even not-yet-fully-Islamic India, do not allow their citizens (or should I say their serfs) that right. In those countries, speaking your mind could be dangerous to your health.
Smoke ’em if you got ’em
However, freedom of speech does not impose any obligation on others to help you exercise that freedom, nor obliges others to hear what you have to say. As the old American expression goes, “smoke ’em if you got ’em.” Meaning do it if you can but if you can’t, don’t look to me for help.
I have the freedom to speak or not. You have the freedom to listen or not. Nobody is obliged to help me in my exercise of my freedom to speak. Also, nobody should be compelled to speak, and nobody should be compelled to listen to others speak. This is just a corollary of the general principle that forbids compulsion, the non-aggression principle (NAP) broadly understood. That principle or axiom states that aggression is inherently illegitimate, and defines “aggression” as “initiating or threatening the use of any and all forcible interference with an individual or individual’s property.”
There is a great deal of confused thinking regarding the freedom of speech. It’s a freedom, not a right to speech. Freedoms and rights are not the same though well-meaning people frequently conflate the two. (I recommend a piece that wrote on “The Distinction Between Rights & Freedom.”)
Here’s an illustration of the confusion that results from misunderstanding what the freedom of speech implies..
Perhaps he wrote it tongue in cheek. Not being a fan of Ms Roy myself, I can see his point, although I will not ever advocate violence against anyone for whatever they say or write, even though much of what Ms Roy writes is pernicious trash.
Reacting to Twitters action against Mr Rawal, @MrsGandhi, an enthusiastic supporter of Prime Minister Modi and the BJP, expressed shock and asked “Whatever happened to freedom of expression?”
The answer to her rhetorical question is: “Nothing happened. Freedom of expression has nothing to do with Twitter’s decision to block Paresh Rawal’s tweet/account.”
Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are not public properties that the public may use any which way they wish. They are the private property of private corporations. These corporations are commercial enterprises that are in the business of selling a product to their customers. The consumers choose to “buy” what the social media corporations sell. It is voluntary trade and therefore either party can unilaterally refuse to enter into the contract. There is no obligation that the seller must sell to all who wish to buy, neither is any buyer obligated to buy.
Twitter has every right to block whomever they please for whatever reason from their platform. Twitter has that right just as much as you have the right to prevent me from coming into your living room and making a speech. I have the freedom of speech but not on your property. You are not trampling on my freedom of speech by protecting your property rights. I have the freedom to speak on my property and on public property, but do not have the right to trespass on the private property of others.
Private Corporations are not the Government
Let us be very clear about the US First Amendment previously mentioned. It imposes a constraint on the Congress from “abridging free speech” and that constraint does not apply to private individuals or corporations. The government cannot suppress, for example, what I publish. But if the New York Times refuses to publish my rant, I cannot invoke the First Amendment. I have the freedom to publish my rants on my blog, which is my private property.
In the US, the First Amendment applies to the government. That means, the US government is prohibited from telling Twitter what or whom to publish or not publish because that would amount to abridging the freedom of speech, expression and of the press.
Freedom of speech is a precious possession of some nations only. Most people, including the citizens of India, don’t have the good fortune of having governments that are constitutionally constrained from abridging the freedom of speech (I love that expression) of their citizens. Corporations are free to censor whomever for whatever reasons; the US government cannot without being challenged in the US Supreme Court.
YouTube is not Public Property
YouTube is private property. I don’t like it when YouTube pointlessly censors videos that I wish everyone should watch. But I respect YouTube’s right do block users for whatever reason. I don’t like YouTube’s shameless political correctness in blocking the brilliant, outspoken, “Islamophobe”, the one and only Pat Condell. Pat Condell has to go elsewhere to broadcast his messages, which he does. Here’s Pat with “A Word to the Criminal Migrant.”
— Pat Condell (@patcondell) December 17, 2017
If the leaders of the Western nations were to listen to @patcondell, and heed his warnings, I think it would be good for the world at large. I would like his videos to be watched by billions, not just millions. But YouTube has the right that it must have — to block any user it feels like blocking.
Government Censorship is Dangerous
Finally, let’s consider an example of a absurdly dangerous idea, expressed in this tweet:
— VK (@kattivinay) December 30, 2017
— MadhuPurnima Kishwar (@madhukishwar) December 30, 2017
Madhi Purnima Kishwar, a highly respected heavy-weight political commentator, author, journalist is understandably disturbed by Twitter’s blocking of @mediacrooks account. I am disturbed too. But what is really distressing is that @madhukishwar seeks to enlist the help of the BJP government. I may be wrong about this, but it appears that she wants the government to intervene and force @TwitterIndia to remove the block. Why else would she recommend that an appeal be addressed to Amit Malviya (@malviyamit) who heads the BJP IT cell?
Asking the government to force a publisher to publish is no different in principle from forcing a publisher to not publish. India has nothing equivalent to the First Amendment of the US constitution. The government of India can, and routinely does, censor books, movies, speech and whatever it feels like. It will be a long while before the Indian government is constitutionally constrained from doing harm to the Indian society.
Here endth the rant. (Read the follow up post.)
Happy 2018 to all. Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.