Absolute Freedom of Speech And Expression – Are We Ready?
We demand freedom of speech and expression but do we know what it actually is? Is it simply the freedom to say what we want? Or is it the freedom to have no one question us for what we say? Is it the freedom to face no consequences for our words? Or is the freedom to say what we want but be accountable for it?
Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines freedom of expression, as the “Freedom to hold opinions without interference and seek, receive and impart information through any media.” But can there be a Universal definition for freedom of expression? Is that all it is – a mere textual definition?
In his novel 1984, George Orwell said, “Freedom is the freedom to say two plus two is four.” But freedom of speech is also the freedom to say two plus two is five if one believes it to be true. The true essence of freedom of speech is not limited to stating the obvious. It is stating what one believes to be true even if it may not be.
It is a fundamental human right. ‘Words are the greatest gift for a man,’ is indeed very true. It is a medium to speak one’s mind, raise issues and bring unpopular opinion into the masses. It is the basis for all other rights. Without freedom of speech and expression, there is no liberty, no democracy and no freedom at all.
The demand for freedom of speech is necessary and so is the recognition of freedom given by the government to us. Many constitutions allow their citizens to have freedom of speech and expression but under certain restrictions. The demand for absolute freedom of speech and expression, is a demand to remove these restrictions. But the question is, are these demands justified? Do we really need to remove these restrictions? Why were these restrictions imposed in the first place? And most importantly, are we ready to exercise absolute freedom of speech and expression?
Currently, the demand for absolute freedom of speech and expression cannot truly be declared justified. Delhi riots of 2020, the deathbed of more than 50 people, is the perfect example of what violation of freedom of speech and expression can do to a country. What started off as a peaceful protest against CAA by women, turned into Hindu mobs attacking Muslim communities, leaving the country shaking by the time everything settled.
Former MLA and a current BJP leader, Kapil Mishra, in his speech asking the Delhi Police to get the roads cleared within three days not only gave an ultimatum of taking matters into his own hands after the three-day time period, but also triggered the communal riots, leading to heavy damage to life and property.
While trying to silence the voices raised against CAA, not only did he go to extreme lengths violating his freedom of speech and expression, he became the reason an entire community was stricken with fear and rendered helpless. Is this the cost of absolute freedom of speech and expression? Is it worth the cause? Fear and hate- that’s what was ultimately achieved. Is that what we are looking for?
Regulations were imposed to curb problems like protecting the minorities, preventing people from defaming others, spreading hate speech, hurting the sentiments of other communities and most importantly, making people accountable for what they say. Freedom of speech and expression is not the freedom to say whatever comes to our minds without a filter, it is a responsibility to express our thoughts in a manner that other people do not suffer because of them.
In a true sense, the extent of freedom of speech and expression is not determined by the government, but the citizens themselves. Most governments do not stop their citizens from expressing themselves in the masses, rather it is the citizens who end up going to extreme lengths in violating their freedom. Use of freedom of speech and expression does not mean the right to abuse. It is to be carried out responsibly. To some people, freedom of speech allows them to speak what they want but if someone says something back, it’s a violation of their rights. Is this what freedom of speech and expression is all about? No.
Freedom of speech and expression is the freedom to disagree, to disapprove things. But it is not the freedom to abuse in case of disagreement. It is us who needs to change our perspective. Neither the government nor the protests can fully ensure freedom of speech and expression to all. It is us who hold the power to create such a world. The day when we understand the true essence of freedom of speech and expression, is the day when we truly have it. Till then, the debate goes on…