Free Speech: Significance and Limitations

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The importance of the freedom of speech is demonstrated by the fact that societies who limit and restrict freedom of expression are more likely to commit crimes and have more instances of torture, maltreatment, and disappearances. The right to free speech has been curtailed almost universally due to concerns over national security, defamation, religious intolerance, extremism, or radicalism. As important as material interdependence is mental interdependence. Being a social species, man cannot survive, thrive, or advance alone. Discursive engagement, with all of its benefits, is crucial for developing moral character because of its clarity and directness. One cannot even ask for or make use of all other most prized rights and liberties without the ability to express oneself. Thus, the foundation of ability and freedom of expression is the very edifice of all other human rights. A democratic society, ensuring basic human rights, cannot possibly be imagined sans freedom of speech and expression, being cornerstones of every egalitarian society. Shaping such a society is impossible if the dominant narrative is not open to challenge or criticism. Nothing can be more devastating for the norms of a democratic society than the savage crackdown, just to gag dissentient elements. Hence freedom of speech is of immense significance, and it also presupposes that what one says must be of some value and must not be devoid of reasonableness to get into the cover of protected speech and a fundamental right. Nelson Mandela (1990) has aptly remarked to sufficiently indicate the significance of basic human rights, i.e., “To deny people, their human rights, is to challenge their very humanity.” The contemporary world has reached a unanimous consensus as to the hierarchy of rights, and freedom of speech unequivocally takes priority Freedom of speech is primarily the right to think, act or express as one likes, as well as the right to impart, receive or seek ideas or information without any fear or unreasonable interference.

The hostility and opposition to dictatorial regulations are regarded to be the root cause of all the revolutions that have been seen over the world. Revolutions were a response to governments that denied the general populace the right to free speech or even the freedom to speak at all. The right to free expression is guaranteed by the 1948-adopted Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was restated in 1993. The formation of a common political and legal culture across all nations and regions was also a goal. A bird’s-eye view of the written constitutions of many nation-states demonstrates that while the culture of each state has a discernible influence, human rights-related wording is largely consistent across all international constitutions. Yet, interpretations and implications may be different in one particular culture than in the other. For instance, after the Charlie Hebdo killings in January 2015, media groups from the West and the Muslim world were entirely divided. BBC News and New York Times lauded Charlie Hebdo for protecting free speech and its Western values, including the liberty to offend the religious sentiments of a community. Conversely, the Muslim world and its representative media, Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera, stressed the necessity of professionalism and good taste in journalism and took the discourse of western media as anti-Muslim and Islamophobia.

Free speech is a fundamental right that is mentioned in every single constitution in the world. The same is also guaranteed by Article 19 of the Pakistani Constitution of 1973. Similar to this, the first amendment of the American Constitution guarantees Americans’ right to free speech. The right to free speech is also protected under Article 10 of the UK’s 1998 Human Rights Act and by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Every citizen of Pakistan is guaranteed freedom of speech under Article 19 of the 1973 Pakistan Constitution, which can be exercised both individually and collectively. Under Article 19, the freedom of the press, including print and electronic media, has been explicitly protected. Yet freedom on the anvil is not absolute freedom. As a single sentence guaranteeing this freedom also obligates its beneficiaries to certain “reasonable restrictions imposed by law”. Here come confrontations and limitations witnessed by many of us many times. Law of Defamation, Law of Contempt of Court, Anti-Hate Laws to prevent hate propaganda, Laws as to Fighting Words, Blasphemy Laws, Censorship related laws and laws to counter obscenity etc., are glaring examples of limitations on the freedom of speech.

So much so that Article 68 of the constitution itself includes a restriction on free speech. It stipulates that the Supreme Court and the High Courts of Pakistan’s judges shall not engage in professional activity that is subject to parliamentary debate in the august house. In contrast, Article 66 grants members of parliament an unqualified privilege. Any statements made by such members on the floor of the house are not subject to legal action under any circumstances. The importance of free and open discourse for the smooth and efficient operation of the political process is well demonstrated by this parliamentary privilege. The Supreme Court had time and again upheld that freedom of speech must be enjoyed, giving a considerate view to the privileged protection of the dignity of a person propounded under Article 14. These entire restrictions pose a question, i.e., are we striving to achieve a utopian, benign and offense-free society? The answer is that offense free and benign society should not be regarded as a Utopian thing; rather a sincere and genuine effort must be made to make it happen. On the other hand, limitations and restrictions must not be flawed, unclear, or overbroad, as they pose a danger to not only the right to free speech but to all fundamental human rights. Limitations must not be there to facilitate a crackdown on civil liberties or to stifle dissent. Stifled or outlawed dissent is most probably to go underground and fester, culminating in a potential threat to durable peace across the globe. The only way out is not to let these limitations become a risky tool.

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