Should Freedom of Speech be unconditional?

The framers of our Constitution made elaborate provisions for various freedoms to the citizens keeping view of the fact that our people had suffered for ages under foreign oppressive rule.

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-Abhay Saxena

“Should Freedom of Speech be absolute and unconditional?” the moderator threw the question to a panel of dignitaries during the last session of this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival. It turned out to be a good debate and speakers expressed their views candidly. One speaker said that in a democracy, all individuals should be allowed to make their statements, irrespective of its content or the intent. And the judgment whether that statement is justifiable and worth an attention should be left to people and people only.

Another expert held the view that the moral rules should be seen as uniform by all of us. Just like we exercise self restraint while speaking out anything in personal forums, we should exercise the same sensitivity when we speak out in public forums. Some speakers also opined that censorships do not guarantee morality, but there certainly should be some checks imposed by the state to ensure sane exchanges of views and exclusion of potentially damaging outbursts.

Freedom of speech and expression in Indian context is one the six basic rights to freedom that our constitution grants to each and every Indian citizen as stated in Article 19. Rights to assemble peacefully and without arms; to form associations or unions; to move freely throughout the territory of India; to reside and settle anywhere in India; and to practice any profession, carry out any occupation, trade or business are the other basic freedoms that every Indian citizen is entitled to. But all these rights, however basic are not absolute. The clause (2) of the same article imposes certain restrictions. Wherever there is a threat to national security, sovereignty and integrity, public order, decency and morality, friendly relations with foreign states and other similar events, these basic rights could be revoked.Freedom of Speech Debate at JLF 2016

We are a civilized society. We have a comprehensive and well written Constitution that is also amended from time to time in order to keep it contextual and afresh. The framers of our Constitution made elaborate provisions for various freedoms to the citizens keeping view of the fact that our people had suffered for ages under foreign oppressive rule. Some critics suggest that these freedoms are our basic rights and not the privileges extended by the state. The rights are basic entitlements whereas privileges are favours or special advantages. The freedom of speech like other freedoms should be secured by the state by all means, these critics assert. It is a way to empower people, who are the raison d’être or the reason to exist for a nation.

However, with empowerment comes a responsibility. The rights are to be exercised and not abused. Freedom of speech should be seen as an equalizer and not as a means for discrimination. A highly provocative remark made in public has a potential to bring about huge damages to spirit, property and lives.

There is also a growing concern among people about the allowance of profanities and abusive language in the name of entertainment. The Youtube channel AIB has been in news for its content and presentation. The programme has raised many eyebrows and some support as well. Some people say that the freedom of speech and expression must go hand in hand with cultural mores and our age-old value system. Indecency might not be immoral but it certainly is distasteful. Others contend that it is up to the audience to decide what is worth consuming and what is not, but there should never be any restriction on self-expression.

There has also been a hot debate over an issue of intolerance in the country. There was a thick flux of opposing opinions from all walks of life. Some viewed the country as one growing in intolerance. Others opined that India is world’s most tolerant nation. Those crying ‘intolerance’ were blamed of misusing their freedom of speech and denting the image of the country.

We are dealing with a very tricky question. Freedom of speech is very precious to every individual, but with time, there has been a tremendous change in value-systems, life-styles and beliefs. We are constantly moving towards more and more openness in our outlook. We are now discussing those issues which mattered a lot but were long kept under the carpet. We now have frank opinions about LGBT, live-in relationships, sexuality and other such issues that were once considered too sensitive to touch. In that sense, the freedom of speech and expression is a wonderful aid in our social development. However, we are also witnessing increasing instances of crude and insensitive outbursts in the name of freedom of speech and expression that have done more harm than good to public life. Insensitive remarks about each other’s religions and those against women reflect an immature mindset.

It is good that a debate is going around about freedom of speech and expression being unconditional and absolute. But as is the case with most of the debates, here too we are faced with differing viewpoints. In such a situation, our constitution comes to our rescue that grants us all livable but conditional freedoms. When in doubt, we should refer to the relevant clauses that ideally preclude their abuse. We should also refer to the Fundamental Duties as stipulated in Part V- A of the same constitution that are our moral obligations towards the country. Growing together as individuals and as a nation is our shared goal. And growth does call for some self-discipline. Our fundamental rights should make us wiser, saner and a bit more sensitive. If we are not heading that way, it is an ugly indication to the fact that our ‘rights’ have become the ‘wrongs’. God forbid!!!

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