Free Speech in the Youtube era…


Among other things, the reactions to the offensive movie also signify gaps in mutual understanding of how different societies are organised to deal with the power of offensive speech.

In the United States, the ability to restrict speech is restricted by law as the range of the so-called protected speech has greatly expanded over time.  Apart from legalese around the free speech there are also social normative frameworks within which the speech operates.  That is to say, even when a particular kind of speech is protected, people will refrain from it for social reasons. The social normative frameworks work similarly in other societies as well. People just know what can or cannot be said when they are socialized in a society. The normative frameworks while they govern the free speech also make possible the courageous speech and such expressions as speaking truth to power.  The entire range of speech is, therefore, circumscribed by the history which has shaped both the social and legal facets of the discourse around free speech.

Crucially important, it is, therefore, for the public intellectual in the Muslim world to also factor in her analysis the legal environment in which certain speech becomes ‘protected speech’ even when it is deemed reprehensible by the leaders of the country. The Feds, for all their power, are not even able to stop the Neo Nazi picketers or various Militias from operating and speaking their mind out.  The term protected speech needs to be understood as distinct from free speech. To understand this, consider the so-called Skokie Affair, described in some detail below.

The Skokie affair took place in 1977. Skokie is the name of a small village in Illinois which was predominantly populated by the Jewish people, many of which were also survivors from Nazi Germany. A certain National Socialist Party of America (NSPA), a White Supremacist outfit, led by a man named Frank Collins announced plans for a March in Skokie .  Skokie’s officials obtained an injunction against the NSPA plans. But the injunction was reversed, after which Skokie immediately prohibited certain kinds of demonstrations through enforcing three ordnances. Collins sued the village actions on grounds that these ordnances violated first constitutional amendment.

The judgement of the judges of the court of appeal is telling, not least because it ruled in favour of Collins, but also because it acknowledge how painful this decision was, but still had to be taken to uphold the values embedded in the constitutional amendment.  The judges write:

The conflict underlying this litigation has commanded substantial public attention, and engendered considerable and understandable emotion. We would hopefully surprise no one by confessing personal views that NSPA’s beliefs and goals are repugnant to the core values held generally by residents of this country, and, indeed, to much of what we cherish in civilization. As judges sworn to defend the Constitution, however, we cannot decide this or any case on that basis. Ideological tyranny, no matter how worthy its motivation, is forbidden as much to appointed judges as to elected legislators. [emphasis mine].

Another telling passage from the decision:

But our task here is to decide whether the First Amendment protects the activity in which appellees [Frank Collins] wish to engage, not to render moral judgment on their views or tactics. No authorities need be cited to establish the proposition, which the Village does not dispute, that First Amendment rights are truly precious and fundamental to our national life. Nor is this truth without relevance to the saddening historical images this case inevitably arouses. It is, after all, in part the fact that our constitutional system protects minorities unpopular at a particular time or place from governmental harassment and intimidation, that distinguishes life in this country from life under the Third Reich. [Insertions and emphasis is mine]

If the village believed in the first constitutional amendment, as it obviously did, it could not justifiably contest the right of the neo Nazis to demonstrate in the midst of a predominantly Jewish population.

The issues created by the free speech produced in the United States can be addressed through recourse to courts. However, when such free speech is piped through the cyberspace and consumed on the computer terminals in other societies, which do not have the same constitutional environment and history of addressing such conflicts through legal means, an incendiary situation results.  There may, therefore, be a strong case for creating legal barriers to the unfettered flight of free speech to societies that do not have the legal and social means to absorb and process the consequences of such speech.

The barriers to content on the internet are not unheard of. Such barriers do exist in the case of corporate content. For example, you cannot see the Netflix content usually available in the US in other countries and vice-versa. While in the UK, I have tried several times to see Cobert Report on line but get this message: “Sorry this content is not available from your location.” Also, when attempting the Jon Stewart daily show, I get an even longer message:

The daily dot com show site is designed for use within the USA so a lot of the site, including most of the videos, won’t work for the visitors from outside the country. You are most welcome to come in and check it out but for a better experience we recommend that you visit your local daily show web site.

Lest the readers understand me wrong, I am not arguing against freedom of speech or not acknowledging the existence of hateful offensive speech.  I am just arguing that free speech and its government is historically and culturally specific. Freed of its specific historical and cultural milieu, it becomes something other than itself.

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About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

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