September 17, 2014
Freedom of Expression with Limitations
by Dr. Azmi Sharom@www.thestar.com
IN the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion, indeed in some cases one might say uproar, over the use of the Sedition Act.
I have no wish to talk about the Act itself because it has been done to death in recent times. Furthermore, I am currently rather intimately involved with the Act as I was charged under it earlier this month.Instead, I would like to go back to the fundamental issue here, which is freedom of expression. Clearly the Sedition Act curbs freedom of expression. Is this a bad thing? Well, not necessarily.
You see, despite what some quarters might believe, no one in his right mind would want absolute freedom of expression. That would be ludicrous. However, before we begin to discuss what sort of restrictions on expression there should be, let us first examine our attitudes towards this particular freedom itself.
Naturally I can’t speak for anyone else, so this is a purely personal take. I think that the ideal is absolute freedom. In other words, absolute freedom of expression is the best thing to have. Unfortunately, we all know that in this world, reason and honesty are sometimes in short supply.
Therefore, there is clearly a need for some sort of laws and controls over people who would defame others or call for unacceptable things, like genocide.
However, when thinking about the controls and laws you want to impose, a person’s fundamental belief system comes into play. Hence, if you are like me and believe that total freedom is the ideal, then any restriction would be most carefully thought out and applied in order to disturb the ideal as little as possible.
Thus, freedom of expression itself is to be protected as much as possible and any limitation must infringe as little as possible on said freedom. There is no need to defend freedom of expression because it is a given, conversely one has to defend the need for laws that curb those freedoms.
Now, if you don’t believe that freedom is the ideal, then things would look very different indeed. Because there is no inherent appreciation of freedom, one would make laws that curb those freedoms to whatever extent one thinks is necessary for one’s own interest.
Perversely, the laws restricting said freedoms become the given and freedom of expression has to be justified.This is most undesirable because of all the civil and political rights that exist, freedom of expression is arguably the most important. Well, to be honest, in my point of view, it is the most important right of all.
So many other rights are intimately linked to freedom of expression, such as assembly, association, faith and the right to have a democratically elected government.Some people criticise freedom of expression as being an esoteric thing, something that bothers the so-called intelligentsia and not the ordinary man on the street. After all, how does speaking one’s mind put food on the table?
I would argue against such an idea. It is true that freedom of expression won’t feed the poor in a direct manner but, without it, how on earth can we expose poor policies that perpetuate poverty, or corrupt practices that take public money away from doing good and into the pockets of the dishonest, or wasteful inefficiency?
To conclude, I reiterate the value of freedom of expression and its importance in making society a better place free from tyrants and despots.
But, what about the limitations that I mentioned earlier? What sort of control should there be?I would suggest that any laws that curb freedom to express oneself ought to be limited to matters such as incitement to violence, civil defamation and perhaps hate speech.
But whatever law one wants to create, great care must be taken in its drafting; great effort must be made in allowing as much open debate as possible and underlying it all the ultimate ideal of absolute freedom must always be kept in mind.
Of course any law, no matter how well drafted, would be an absolute mockery of justice if it is applied in an unequal manner, so the enforcement of the law must also be unprejudiced.Now being the proponent of free speech is not an easy thing because one has to respect the right of everyone to express themselves, even those who may vehemently disagree with one.
So I shall end this column by saying, feel free to criticise what I have just said. After all, it’s your right.
Azmi Sharom (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a law teacher. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.