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Can Freedom of Speech and Expression be Absolute

There has often been a demand for absolute freedom of speech from various interest groups. However scope and limits of freedom of speech and expression are limited by its constraints. Hence absolute freedom of speech and expression is only a mirage.

 
 
Dr Mahesh C. Jain
Dr Mahesh C. Jain
PRLog - Feb. 4, 2013 - Absolute freedom is what we all desire. Likewise we all want to enjoy absolute freedom of speech and self expression. Therefore it is not surprising that freedom of speech and expression has been granted to us even by law.

Freedom of speech and expression has been recognized as a fundamental right in Article 19(1) of constitution of India. Freedom of speech is guaranteed not only by the constitution or statutes of various states but also by various international conventions like Universal Declaration of Human Rights, European convention on Human Rights and fundamental freedoms, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights etc. These declarations expressly talk about protection of freedom of speech and expression.

In the judgment of the case Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India  the Supreme Court held that the freedom of speech and expression has no geographical limitation and it carries with it the right of a citizen to gather information and to exchange thought with others not only in India but abroad also.

Why to protect freedom of speech?

Freedom of speech offers human being opportunity to express their feelings to one another, but this is not the only reason; purpose to protect the freedom of speech. There are four other reasons for freedom of speech –

1)  Discovery of truth by open discussion - According to it restrictions on speech shall prevent the ascertainment and publication of accurate facts and valuable opinion. Therefore freedom of speech is essential for social well-being.

2) Free speech as an aspect of self- fulfillment and development – freedom of speech is an integral aspect of each individual’s right to self-development and self-fulfillment. Restriction on what we are allowed to say and write or to hear and read will hamper our personality and its growth. It helps an individual to attain self-fulfillment.

3) For expressing belief and political attitudes - freedom of speech provides opportunity to express one’s belief and show political attitudes. It ultimately results in the welfare of the society and state. Thus, freedom of speech provides a mechanism by which it would be possible to establish a reasonable balance between stability and social change.

4) For active participation in democracy – democracy is most important feature of today’s world. Freedom of speech is there to protect the right of all citizens to understand political issues so that they can participate in smooth working of democracy. That is to say, freedom of speech strengthens the capacity of an individual in participating in decision-making.

Thus we find that protection of freedom of speech is very much essential. Protection of freedom of speech is important for the discovery of truth by open discussion, for self- fulfillment and development, for expressing belief and political attitudes, and for active participation in democracy.

However, there are several restrictions to freedom of speech and expression. In British law, freedom of speech and expression is limited by legally prescribed   prohibitions.

Supreme Court in a recent judgment has held that freedom of speech and expression is "not an absolute" and remarked that journalists "should know the lakshman rekha so that they don't cross the line of contempt."

Justice Kapadia also clarified that the postponement will be for a short period of time and will not affect the trial. The doctrine, he added, has been evolved as a "preventive measure" for "administration of justice and fairness of trial" and not as a prohibitive and punitive measure.

Clause (2) of Article 19 of Indian constitution contains the grounds on which restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression can be imposed. It is self-evident that Grounds contained in Article 19(2) show that they are all concerned with the national interest or in the interest of the society. The first set of grounds i.e. the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States and public order are all grounds referable to national interest; whereas, the second set of grounds i.e. decency, morality, contempt of court, defamation and incitement to an offence are all concerned with the interest of the society.

Similar legal situation prevails in various countries i.e. on one hand law confers freedom of speech and expression and on the other hand undermines it by imposing restrictions due to various reasons. Hence legally freedom of speech is not absolute.

We exist as independent, discrete entities in dependent and interdependent relationship with other discrete entities. No one exists in vacuum. Absolute freedom of any kind is bound to often lead to conflict situations with other independent entities existing in our ecosystem. These conflicts are likely to be a threat to our peace and tranquility. These conflicts must be avoided all the time and therefore we can exercise our freedom of speech and expression with discretion only. Indiscriminate exercise of freedom can often be detrimental to our own interest.

We all have to live as a part of a social system and no system can grant complete independence to any of its parts.

A view has been advanced that let the individuals be granted absolute freedom of speech and expression and let individual members of the society decide for themselves, whether or not they want to get along. But no uncivil means should be adopted to protest against things and events which individual members of the society find objectionable. For example M.F.Hussain should not have been made to flee the country and live in exile. I am afraid this is not an acceptable position. If M.F. Hussain had his freedom, society and its members had their freedom to have a view about his work and select the mode of protest. If M.F. Hussain was unable to appropriately regulate his creative surge then he can’t expect society to regulate its retaliatory urge and confine strictly to protest before a court of law. Uncivilized people can’t claim protection from the civilized society for their uncivil acts, means and methods. They can’t ask society to use only civil means against them.  It is an unfortunate situation but unavoidable too. One can’t demand mature civil form of protest by others when one’s hands are not clean.

Misuse of freedom of speech and expression for the purpose of mass marketing is widely rampant. Journalist, authors, painters, feature film makers and others would deliberately create and publish material only to capture mass attention by creating a controversy because they know that controversies generally sell well. They are well aware of gullibility of people and know how to exploit it to further their commercial interest. So first they commit acts injurious to interest of the society and state and then seek protection under the right to freedom of speech and expression. No civilized society can ever afford such misuse of its ideals and law.

Summing up freedom of speech and expression can’t be absolute. It is subject to several constraints. Any society is well within its rights to preemptively employ various means to enforce constraints to freedom of speech and expression.

Author: Dr Mahesh C. Jain is a practicing medical doctor and has written the book “Encounter of Science with Philosophy – A synthetic view”. The book begins with first chapter devoted to scientifically valid concept of God and then explains cosmic phenomena right from origin of nature and universe up to origin of life and evolution of man. The book includes several chapters devoted to auxiliary concepts and social sciences as corollaries to the concept of God. This is the only book which deals with origin of nature and universe from null or Zero or nothing.

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