Free speech and the law

Free speech and the law

It is a sad day for Indian democracy when elected lawmakers encourage and mount violent attacks on individuals engaged in freedom of speech as guaranteed under the law.

This is the case when miscreants associated with the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) assaulted Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen and also caused damage to the Hyderabad Press Club.

In other countries, extremism and terrorism by individuals or groups aligning themselves with Islam have provoked military reprisals or invasions. Along these lines, strategic concerns were used to justify military actions in Afghanistan or Gaza or Iraq.

But there are better ways to target and hold accountable those involved in outrages against the wider community. Besides actions initiated by government agencies, private individuals or firms should use the law to protect their persons as well as their property and other assets.This latter approach would involve the pursuit of civil actions in the courts to request judicial remedy for injuries, deaths or property losses.

It is incumbent upon the Hyderabad Press Club to take civil actions to force the MIM to pay repair costs and punitive damages to forestall future abuse of the law.

Choosing not to do so would be an evasion of a public duty to ensure the promotion of a just legal order.

The widow of US journalist Daniel Pearl sued Pakistan’s largest bank and terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, for their role in the murder of her husband. She filed a case with the US district court for the eastern district of New York to demand unspecified punitive damages to deter similar terrorist acts.

The most basic requirement of government is the maintenance of public order and the promotion of a stable civil society. As such, public prosecutors must pursue criminal charges against individuals and groups for incitement to riot or stirring up religious or ethnic turmoil that provokes violence.

Freedom of speech within a democracy is a fragile thing. Calls for legitimate public action to engage in or promote one’s faith must be carefully protected. However, inciting violence in a politically charged atmosphere is as irresponsible as shouting “fire" in a crowded cinema hall.

Injunctions can be invoked against parties that encourage or engage in violent acts, while tour operators, hotels and commercial enterprises can seek damages through the courts. Of course, this requires political and judicial backbone to impose fines and/or imprisonment.

Thoughtful restraint and individual accountability are not only a matter for secular citizens of a democracy. It must apply equally to those that pretend to speak for a religious community.

Using civil and criminal law provides private and social redress against acts that cause intentional injury to third parties. Perhaps the main beneficiaries would be the believers in mainstream interpretations of Islam. After all, Islam’s rich heritage deserves protection from further damage by injudicious agitators who must be held responsible for ill-considered actions.

Actions by extremists impose social and private costs on many others. A good way to drain the swamp of terrorism and intolerance is to undermine the financial means to wage war against civilization and democracy.

Pursuit of civil and criminal action by private individuals against violent agitators can lower the pitch of the battle from being between civilizations, as Osama bin Laden would have it. Instead, the struggle can be shifted to be between injured parties and perpetrators of violence.

(Christopher Lingle is research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi. Comment at