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Posts Tagged ‘freedom of speech’

The diplomat, 47-year-old Rowan Laxton, allegedly shouted “f***ing Israelis, f***ing Jews” while watching television reports of the Israeli attack on Gaza last month.

He is also alleged to have said that Israeli soldiers should be “wiped off the face of the Earth” during the rant at the London Business School gym near Regents Park on January 27. […]

After a complaint from a member of the public, Mr Laxton was arrested for inciting religious hatred – which can carry a seven-year prison term – and bailed to reappear at a central London police station at the end of March.

Here’s the full report.

The wisdom of having a law directed against incitement of racial hatred is questionable; the particular application here borders on the absurd. Or perhaps I am merely arguing from a strictly American viewpoint — courts here have repeatedly ruled that “incitement” must always carry an element of imminence — which might not apply in the land of the Queen.

Anyway, the point is, a person would never be prosecuted for a racial tirade in the US. Reminds me that in many ways, the US still offers free-speech protection far superior to anywhere else. I should do some research on Switzerland law before I move there.

Also read: My short post comparing free-speech protections in some selected countries.

Update: I should add that the free speech protections in this country exist primarily because they are constitutionally granted. If the present public had its way, it would certainly get diluted, as it has in so many other places.

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(See updates below)

(This post, for legal reasons that will be obvious, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 License.)

Gaurav Sabnis writes about the unfortunate case of blogger Chetan Kunte, whose views about Barkha Dutt’s “unethical reporting” apparently caused NDTV to browbeat him into deleting the post and replacing it with an apology.

It does not take a PhD in reading between the lines to guess what happened. NDTV probably sent Kunte a legal notice, asking him to pull the post down, apologize, never write about them again, and pay an absurdly massive amount of money. Remember this legal notice from a few years back? Seems like NDTV might have used the same basic wording.

I don’t know if that is true. I do strongly suspect, however, that someone acted like a bully. Gaurav notes that Chetan’s post is available through Google Cache. Since I do not know how long it will stay there, I am going to cross-post the entire thing here. I am not violating Kunte’s copyright because his license terms (the same as this particular post) allow me to republish his writing with attribution. [Update: see below] I also believe that his entire post was basically a collection of opinions and not literal statements of fact; hence Kunte did not defame Barkha Dutt/NDTV by writing this post and I am not doing so by posting it here.

I urge all bloggers who feel similarly to do the same.

Appalling journalism. Absolute blasphemy! As I watch the news from home, I am dumbfounded to see Barkha Dutt of NDTV break every rule of ethical journalism in reporting the Mumbai mayhem. Take a couple of instances for example:

In one instance she asks a husband about his wife being stuck, or held as a hostage. The poor guy adds in the end about where she was last hiding. Aired! My dear friends with AK-47s, our national news is helping you. Go get those still in. And be sure to thank NDTV for not censoring this bit of information.

In another instance, a General sort of suggests that there were no hostages in Oberoi Trident. (Clever.) Then, our herione of revelations calls the head of Oberoi, and the idiot confirms a possibility of 100 or more people still in the building. Hello! Guys with guns, you’ve got more goats to slay. But before you do, you’ve got to love NDTV and more precisely Ms. Dutt. She’s your official intelligence from Ground zero.

You do not need to be a journalist to understand the basic premise of ethics, which starts with protecting victims first; and that is done by avoiding key information from being aired publicly—such as but not limited to revealing the number of possible people still in, the hideouts of hostages and people stuck in buildings.

Imagine you’re one of those sorry souls holed-up in one of those bathrooms, or kitchens. A journalist pulls your kin outside and asks about your last contact on national television, and other prying details. In a bout of emotion, if they happen to reveal more details, you are sure going to hell. Remember these are hotels, where in all likelihood, every room has a television. All a terrorist needs to do is listen to Ms. Barkha Dutt’s latest achievement of extracting information from your relative, based on your last phone-call or SMS. And you’re shafted—courtesy NDTV.1

If the terrorists don’t manage to shove you in to your private hell, the journalists on national television will certainly help you get there. One of the criticisms about Barkha Dutt on Wikipedia reads thus:

During the Kargil conflict, Indian Army sources repeatedly complained to her channel that she was giving away locations in her broadcasts, thus causing Indian casualties.

Looks like the idiot journalist has not learnt anything since then. I join a number of bloggers pleading her to shut the f⋅⋅⋅ up.

Update: In fact, I am willing to believe that Hemant Karkare died because these channels showed him prepare (wear helmet, wear bullet-proof vest.) in excruciating detail live on television. And they in turn targeted him where he was unprotected. The brave officer succumbed to bullets in the neck.

Update 2 [28.Nov.2300hrs]: Better sense appears to have prevailed in the latter half of today—either willfully, or by Government coercion2, and Live broadcasts are now being limited to non-action zones. Telecast of action troops and strategy is now not being aired live. Thank goodness for that.

Update 3 [30.Nov.1900hrs]: DNA India reports about a UK couple ask media to report carefully:

The terrorists were watching CNN and they came down from where they were in a lift after hearing about us on TV.
— Lynne Shaw in an interview.

Oh, they have a lame excuse pronouncing that the television connections in the hotel has been cut, and therefore it is okay to broadcast. Like hell! [←]

I’m thinking coercion, since Government has just denied renewing CNN’s rights to air video today; must’ve have surely worked as a rude warning to the Indian domestic channels. [←]

I should probably add that I do not agree with Kunte’s opinions. However that is hardly relevant in this context.

[Update: It appears I was mistaken in reading the license; the Creative Commons license governs the Google Cache blog, not Kunte’s blog. (I thought they were the same blog). So it is possible that my republishing Kunte’s post above  violates his copyright. On the other hand, since the original post is no longer available on the author’s blog, my posting it here has news reporting value; so it may well come under ‘fair use’. Anyway, for now, this post stays.]

[Update 2: In a Facebook group, Barkha Dutt (or someone impersonating her) confirms that NDTV did send Kunte a legal notice.

you may want to know that the author of this email- a certain Mr. Kunte who lives in Holland.. has been sent a legal notice by NDTV for the rubbish and lies peddled in this email.

Best Regards

Barkha Dutt.

This whole case has been a PR nightmare for NDTV. If they have any sense whatsoever, they will issue a dignified statement about free speech, retract the threat to Kunte and shut up on this topic henceforth.]

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Freedom has taken a battering in Netherlands lately and this latest news is a sad day for those of us who believe in free speech.

On a related note, it might be interesting to try and figure out what’s the best place for free speech today.

USA? Perhaps has the broadest protections for speech anywhere (thanks to the greatest piece of law ever written) with one sad exception: the obscenity statute. A culture of political correctness that is stronger than continental Europe does, however act as a social deterrent against certain types of speech.

Denmark? You will certainly not be prosecuted for obscenity, but hate speech laws exist — though they are rarely enforced.

Switzerland? Similar to Denmark, but also has laws against holocaust denial.

Netherlands? Till recently this would have been my answer, since their hate speech laws are not as broad and they will certainly not censor porn. Unfortunately they do have laws against discriminatory speech, which is what Wilders is (presumably) being charged under.

Ireland? I don’t know too much, but seems to be a good place. Technically laws against speech that ‘undermine public morality’ exist, but they are never enforced. They do not appear to have hate speech laws or holocaust denial laws.

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Popular blogger and premier gay rights activist Andrew Sullivan writes:

So I oppose hate crime laws because they walk too close to the line of trying to police people’s thoughts. I support the right of various religious associations to discriminate against homosexuals in employment. I support the right of the most fanatical Christianist to spread the most defamatory stuff about me and the right of the most persuasive Christianist to teach me the error of my ways. I support the right of the St Patrick’s Day Parade to exclude gay people – because that’s what freedom of association requires. In my ideal libertarian world, I would even support the right of employers to fire gay people at will (although I am in a tiny minority of gays and straights who would tolerate such a thing). All I ask in return is a reciprocal respect: the right to express myself freely and to be treated by the government exactly as any heterosexual in my position would be treated.

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Eugene Volokh has a thoughtful post about the matter. There’s not much I need to add. A sad day for freedom.

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This case may have set a worrying precedent.

I do not advocate, as some libertarians do, that we do away with all defamation laws. It does make some economic and moral sense to penalize speech that is demonstrably and objectively false, and results in specific harm. However, I am in all circumstances opposed to defamation being a criminal offence — a barbarous relic that has no place in a free society. And truth should always be a defense.

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And thuggishness by, well, see below…

A month ago, I wrote critically about Obama’s attempt to silence advertisements that opposed him: using a combination of his passionate supporter-strength and legal threats.

Sadly, it was not a one-off incident.

The latest targets of the Obama campaign is an advertisement by the National Rifle association (NRA). Obama claims that the ad misrepresents his position, which may well be true. But his response goes beyond that.

The Obama campaign has written radio stations in Pennsylvania and Ohio, pressing them to refuse to air an ad from the National Rifle Association.

“This advertisement knowingly misleads your viewing audience about Senator Obama’s position on the Second Amendment,” says the letter from Obama general counsel Bob Bauer. “For the sake of both FCC licensing requirements and the public interest, your station should refuse to continue to air this advertisement.”

As the letter makes clear, it’s not just a request but a transparent legal threat.

Yes, Obama, and indeed every individual has the right to make legal threats. But this issues isn’t whether Obama did anything illegal in sending that letter (he didn’t) but whether you want a president who lacks the basic respect for the First Amendment and free speech that was displayed here. Can you imagine what it would be like if in an Obama administration, the people sending these letters are not lawyers but Federal investigators?

Yes, the First Amendment is too precious to take a chance with. So, despite the fact that I am an Obama supporter, I’ll respond to him in the only way I can think of — by linking to the NRA ad that he hates.

Update: I now see that David Bernstein at Volokh had the same idea. Good for him and I hope more people do this. The small difference is that Prof. Bernstein titles his post “Doing my patriotic duty”. I am not American, and in any case, this is not about a country. So let’s just say I am being true to my beliefs.

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After Canada, it is Australia.

Australian gun lobbyist Ron Owen has been told he is entitled to express his homophobic views, but that he went too far with the bumper sticker: “Gay Rights? Under God’s law the only rights gays have is the right to die.”

Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Tribunal found Owen guilty of inciting hatred against homosexuals with the bumper sticker when he parked his car outside the Cooloola Shire Council offices in Gympie, north of Brisbane.

[…]The former president of the National Firearm Owners of Australia was taken to the tribunal by several local lesbians, who claimed they had been offended despite only one having seen the bumper sticker.

Two of the women were awarded $4,195, with a third awarded $2,000 in damages.

The problem with a hypothetical “right to not get offended”, indeed with any hate speech law is that it not only contradicts the more important right to freedom of speech but also that offence is an incredibly subjective phenomenon. For example, it is a fact that I am extremely offended at the tribunal’s decision. It insults my deepest beliefs about human rights. It makes me cynical about the state of the world and the future of liberty. Indeed the commision’s decision makes me and other libertarians feel insecure and hated.

Now, can I have my money too?

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This survey reveals everything that is wrong with the the state of freedom in the US. Some highlights:

42% believe that people should NOT be allowed to say things in public that are offensive to certain religious groups.

54% believe that people should NOT be allowed to say things in public that are offensive to certain racial groups.

38% believe that broadcasters should be required to report a certain amount of ‘positive news’ in return for using public airwaves.

66% believe that television broadcasters should be required to allot equal amount of time to liberal and conservative commentators.

62% believe that newspapers should be required to allot equal amount of time to liberal and conservative commentators.

PS: On the other hand, I am almost certain that the first two percentages would be even higher in other Western democracies.

(Hat Tip: The Volokh Conspiracy)

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No, it’s not the Taliban saying this, but the senior-most judge in Saudi Arabia.

The most senior judge in Saudi Arabia has said it is permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV channels which broadcast immoral programmes. […]

“There is no doubt that these programmes are a great evil, and the owners of these channels are as guilty as those who watch them,” said the sheikh.

“It is legitimate to kill those who call for corruption if their evil can not be stopped by other penalties.”

Have a good life.

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Hanging a noose has been a symbolic expression of hatred towards blacks since the days of the Ku Klux Klan. However, noose incidents have increased substantially over the last year, prompting some states to pass hate-crime style laws against it. According to DiversityInc,

To date, three states have passed laws to punish those who use nooses as a means to intimidate. Connecticut and New York passed laws in May, with prison sentences ranging from a year in Connecticut to four years in New York. Earlier this month, Louisiana, the state where thousands of protestors marched in support of the Jena 6, became the third state to pass such a law. So far, no one has been sentenced under these new laws….

Louisiana’s law makes hanging a noose, or an image of one, on another person’s property or on public property with “the intent to intimidate” illegal and punishable by up to $5,000 and up to a year in prison.

Lawmakers in Florida, Maryland, Missouri and North Carolina are considering similar legislation.

There is no doubt that the noose is associated with racial bigotry and intimidation and those who display it to show their lack of regard for others deserve contempt. But do they deserve legal action?

As Mike Riggs points out,

The noose’s negative cultural significance is not sufficient justification to ban it on public property. Why is a group of hicks waving images of a noose—or actual nooses—in the middle of a public park any less deserving of 1st Amendment protection than thousands of Ku Klux Klan members staging a rally on main street? Afterall, in order to allow groups like the Klan to march, cities must be able to differentiate between a protest rally and a mob hell-bent on peforming a lynching. That same rubric should be applied to displays of nooses on public property.

I have similar views on the matter. Expressions of contempt or hatred, provided they are undertaken in a non-violent manner, are consitutionally protected in the USA; there is no need to make an exception for nooses. Of course, if the noose is merely a precursor to an actual lynching or violence, the law has to step in. That would however be true for any similar act that does not involve nooses; as Riggs points out, cities ought to be able to differentiate between the two cases.

The greatness of the First Amendment lies in its absoluteness. Other countries that had incorporated weaker versions of free speech protection, — i.e. with caveats — were ultimately left with no  real  free  speech at all. As I have often pointed out, it is only speech that offends that requires government protection. Recent events in Canada and Europe have amply displayed the chilling effects of hate-crimes legislation.

Notwithstanding the offense-quotient of nooses, banning them, even on public property, does much more harm than good. Offensive or false speech is best countered by forcefully articulating the opposite point of view. It took a long time for mankind to realise the most important truth; let us not go back to the dark ages.

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Iran’s parliament is discussing a bill which would make “establishing weblogs and sites promoting corruption, prostitution or apostasy” a crime punishable by death. The bill also stipulates that once awarded, the sentence “cannot be commuted, suspended or changed”.

More here.

As a morally corrupt (certainly by Iranian standards!), prostitution-advocating libertarian and atheist who delves into all these matters in his posts , I wonder what I’d be thinking now if I were Iranian.

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Inflammatory rhetoric from doomsday-sayers isn’t anything new; nevertheless this statement by climatologist James Hansen strikes me as extreme.

Special interests have blocked transition to our renewable energy future. Instead of moving heavily into renewable energies, fossil companies choose to spread doubt about global warming, as tobacco companies discredited the smoking-cancer link. Methods are sophisticated, including disguised funding to shape school textbook discussions.

CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing and are aware of long-term consequences of continued business as usual. In my opinion, these CEOs should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature. If their campaigns continue and “succeed” in confusing the public, I anticipate testifying against relevant CEOs in future public trials. 

Global warming is real; the science proves it. However, equating the actions of Oil company CEO’s (or tobacco CEO’s for that matter) with actual crimes against humanity displays an astonishing lack of understanding of the words involved and a terrible disregard for the freedoms we hold dear.

(Link via The Volokh Conspiracy)

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This is a disturbing and stark reminder of how much India lags behind the US in free speech.

The cyber cell of the Pune police on Saturday arrested one more suspect for allegedly uploading obscene and derogatory text about Congress chief Sonia Gandhi on a social networking site.

The suspect has been identified as Nithin Chakravarti Suresh Sajja (22) of Begumpeth, Hyderabad. Earlier the crime branch had arrested Rahul Krishnakumar Vaid (22), an IT professional of Gurgaon on May 17.

The Information Technology Act under which the suspect was arrested has been previously used against other people for writing derogatory things about Bal Thackeray, Ambedkar and Shivaji.

Why would this not happen in the United States?

The only law that could conceivably apply in such a scenario in the US is defamation. In order to qualify as defamation under American law, a statement must be both false and injurious to the reputation of an individual. Furthermore, when public figures are involved, the burden is on the accuser to prove malicious intent.

Perhaps the most important qualifier in the above paragraph is the word ‘false’. By definition, opinions cannot be true or false, because they are, well, opinions. Thus, an opinion, however offensive or disgusting, is not legally actionable. A statement that on literal reading is factual but is really just an opinion (e.g “She is a bitch”) is also safe from prosecution.

It seems highly likely that in this particular case, the poor guy currently behind bars was just expressing his opinions about Sonia Gandhi in colorful language. It is also likely that whatever statement he posted did not do any real harm to Ms. Gandhi’s reputation. Thus, if this were the US, the idea that he could be arrested for such an offence would be almost laughable. There is no shortage of offensive humor here against political leaders (check out the Hillary nutcracker) or celebrities in general (in a South Park episode, Paris Hilton is depicted as stuffing a pineapple into her vagina) and no one is ever arrested for such things. 

A second point, I think, is also worth mentioning. Defamation in the US and many other countries is a civil offence, meaning you can be fined for it but not jailed (a few American states still have criminal defamation statutes, but they are almost never enforced). Thus, even if the defamation law did apply to the Sonia Gandhi episode above (that is, if Nithin had made explicit false statements about her), it would not result in jail time.

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(Updated 6/13)

In response to an emailed comment by a certain reader, I feel it is appropriate to clarify my stand on free speech.

I frequently say I believe in complete freedom of speech, no hate-speech exceptions, etc. However when I say complete freedom of speech, I use the term only to refer to expressed opinions. My stand does not extend to protection of false factual claims. I do indeed believe it should be a offence, under certain circumstances, to make specific objectively false statements about others. In other words, I do not advocate repeal of laws against defamation.

(Of course, in some countries it is fashionable to use defamation laws to punish statements that are essentially opinions, or claims that are offensive but true. Needless to say, I find both disgusting.)

There are certain other circumstances where speech can be legitimately regulated. Without discussing them individually, let me just mention that they all fall into one of the two narrow categories listed below:

a) Making objectively false statements that directly hurt the reputation of others. This includes defamation as discussed above, and related matters. In my view, these should be civil offences.

b) Causing imminent and grave violence through speech. This includes situations like ordering your followers to commit a crime, shouting fire in a crowded theatre, directly inciting a riot, telling a companion to step to his left in a dark mountain knowing there is a deep gorge there, using fighting words (defined in a very narrow sense as in current US law). The word ‘imminent’ (as defined in current US law, say) is very important; thus speech that worsens communal harmony and leads to an increased likelihood of violence would not qualify, nor would mere advocacy of a crime. In my view, it should be a criminal offence to violate this exception.

I should stress that these exceptions to free speech are very narrow. In particular, they do not cover opinions, however hurtful.  I believe that offending someone’s feelings through your opinions (e.g. hate speech, religious views) should be completely legal. Similarly I uphold an absolute right to freedom of expression; obscene pictures and blasphemous cartoons are not actionable in my book.

Why then, the two exceptions listed above? I view them as examples of breach of implicit contract, or, in some cases as initiation of force. The people on the theatre, or your friend in the mountain, have an implicit expectation (as long as you have not told them otherwise) that you will not shout ‘fire’ without reason or cause them to fall to their death.

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