Sunday, July 31, 2011

Misuse of a sacred right

The right to free speech is a right whose value you only appreciate when you don't have it. This blogger has experienced what it is not to have that right - where every conceivable & useful global site on the internet is blocked, where any non state controlled TV channel is simply unavailable and where the press is just plain awful. As it would be for any blogger, the right is a precious one. There is the usual saying, I don't like what you say, but I'll defend your right to say it. But is the right to free speech as absolute as it is thought to be. Should it be ?

No right is absolute. Even in America, where the First Amendment protects free speech,  Jutice Holmes Jr in Schenk vs United States observed that shouting Fire falsely in a crowded theatre will not be protected by the First Amendment. In many European countries, denial of the holocaust is not permitted. Recently incitement to religious hatred has also been brought under the ambit of no nos. In India, writings which are seen as offensive to any community and are likely to cause violence are banned.

In the United States, by and large anything goes. And the right is jealously protected, as it should be. In the good old days, you could stand on a soap box and rant for all you want. Or you could find your way into a newspaper. Your audience was limited. But today, any person has an instantaneous global audience. In such a world, does anything go ? Should anything go ?

What about the extremism heard on radio and read in books in the US and the often thinly veiled incitement to violence. What about some notorious imams, who use the precher's pulpit in many parts of the world to declare jihad. What about the deliberate provocation by crazy outfits like the Shiv Sena in India who threaten violence against anybody it doesn't like ? Should their rights of free speech be curtailed.

I ask this, because I saw a video of the sort of right wing extremism that seems to be on the increase in the US. Watch this video (its 20 odd minutes long, but its highly disturbing, to say the least) - my attention to this video was drawn by the blog The Peking Duck. Some deranged idiot takes a leaf out of such rantings and goes and causes serious damage - its not OK to say that it was purely the madman's fault. Something like this has indeed happened in that awful incident in Norway. That crazy seems to have been inspired, amongst other things, by extremist bloggers such as Pam Geller.

We want to wage war against the madrassas that preach hatred and violence. I am not sure that the talk radio extremists are not dangerously close to treading on similar territory. 

The right to free speech is a sacred right. It should not be misused. When it is misused, the remedy is not a government action curtailing the right. But equally, society cannot stand by and watch the right misused. Societies world over have a moral duty to tame the extremism that seems to be increasing in the media. We should not sit quietly and allow our precious right to be misused by a few. Remember, words do kill.