Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Is there really such a thing as a culture of free speech?

Opinion | Is there really such a thing as a culture of free speech?

With reasoned argument rare, we are heading towards becoming the most polarized society ever

Freedom of expression is fundamentally about the right to offend. But I do wish the honourable judges of our Supreme Court (SC) would make up their minds. When Priyanka Sharma was arrested by the West Bengal police last month for retweeting a morphed picture of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, the SC granted her bail, but directed her to apologize. Said justice Indira Banerjee: “Freedom of expression is non-negotiable, but cannot impinge upon another person’s rights." A few days ago, a two-judge bench headed by Banerjee granted bail to journalist Prashant Kanojia, arrested for a supposedly defamatory tweet against Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath. The court treated Kanojia’s case as a matter of personal liberty.

Additional solicitor-general (ASG) Vikramjit Banerjee pointed out that Kanojia had also been charged under Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code—making statements likely to incite a community against another—because of some other “very inflammatory" tweets. For instance, he had tweeted that Hinduism is “a filth on humanity" and should be destroyed, and that “Dalits who claims (sic) to be Hindu are like animals". Banerjee replied: “These sort of tweets should not be made, but arrest?...Fundamental rights are sacrosanct and non-negotiable." The court did not order Kanojia to apologize to Adityanath. When the ASG mentioned the Sharma case, Banerjee brushed him off, saying: “That was on entirely different facts. It was a photo." I am still trying to work out that logic.

Both Sharma and Kanojia should have been granted bail, but the courts should be consistent. Because political parties get agitated about freedom of expression only when one of their supporters gets arrested. The press is partisan. The left-liberal media will march in protest over Kanojia’s arrest, compare the UP government to the Taliban, but will never tell you that, the day after the Kanojia verdict, Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan admitted in the state assembly that 119 people had been booked for “objectionable" social media posts against him since he assumed office on 25 May 2016. At one every nine days, that could be a world record.

Last year, historian Ramachandra Guha decided not to join Ahmedabad University after the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad protested, calling Guha “anti-national" and threatening a “radical movement against [the] institution" if the appointment were not cancelled. On the other side, in 2014, when film director Vivek Agnihotri arrived at Jadavpur University to screen his film Buddha In A Traffic Jam, leftist students, who wanted the event cancelled (though none of them had seen the film), attacked him and broke his shoulder bone. Agnihotri, a Bharatiya Janata Party supporter who coined the term “urban Naxal", welcomed the Kanojia judgment and tweeted: “Nobody should ever be harassed, hurt or arrested for his expression. If we can create gods with spoken/written words, we should also have the right to destroy the same gods with our words."

Meanwhile, YouTube is in all kinds of trouble. Liberals complained about comedian Steven Crowder’s homophobic slurs on his channel. The video site responded that he did not violate the site’s policies. After a storm of criticism, YouTube “demonetized" Crowder, so he would not get any ad revenues from his channel. Critics then pointed out that he made most of his money, not from ads, but from selling branded merchandise, such as T-shirts that say “Socialism is for F*gs". Flummoxed, YouTube said Crowder could re-monetize his channel provided he stopped selling T-shirts. Meanwhile, The New York Times ran stories that YouTube’s recommendation algorithms not only push people towards extreme-right-wing content—to the point of radicalizing impressionable minds—but also aggregate child porn.

Now, YouTube, like Twitter and Facebook, has been accused regularly of having a pro-left bias. So, Crowder alleged that he was being persecuted for his conservative politics. Under attack from all sides, YouTube announced a crackdown on videos promoting Nazism. But in the process, it also blocked footage of Nazi Germany, uploaded by historians to help students and researchers. One British historian called YouTube’s act “a form of Holocaust denial". Freedom of expression is tricky stuff.

The fact is that there is no such thing as a culture of free speech. Today, most political or ideological arguments turn into moral issues and, once they become that, where do you draw the line, and who draws it? On social media, where most freedom of expression controversies begin nowadays, anyone can say pretty much anything. You get trolled, but you also always have allies who troll right back. Reasoned argument is rare. The aim is to create an impression that someone is not worth listening to which, in a way, is to reject a person’s right to freedom of expression. And Twitter’s rules for free and safe public conversation may seem fine on paper (or pixels), but their application will always be suspected of bias. So let us accept that we are heading towards the most polarized society ever, with everyone offended and shouting about freedom of speech at the same time.

Sandipan Deb is former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines at Johns Hopkins University

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