Friday, September 25, 2009

Denying free speech

Very recently, the moderators of the chat group of my university alumni association in Toronto censured me by blocking an email I posted in the e-group. Our alumni president reasoned that my email violated the group’s terms of use as it refers to profanity, obscenity, personal attacks or insults, and malicious and disruptive behaviour.

This present blog that I usually share with my alumni e-group could suffer from a similar fate the moment I publish it. However, as far as I can remember, I have posted nothing in this blog that you could possibly notice or detect, either by the most powerful morality lens or censorship microscope, as profane, obscene, malicious or disruptive. If there is any, kindly point them out to me so I can ask for absolution. My earlier postings in our e-group also contained nothing of the sort that I am now being accused by the leader of our alumni association.

A contrarian or a gadfly maybe. A killjoy, no.

In this age of the Internet, there’s a heavy price to pay for our right to free speech. It is something we cannot take for granted or assume. That everybody knows that everyone is free to express one’s ideas without being censored unless for a good reason. Internet speech is controlled and regulated by self-appointed moderators who may have no tolerance for diversity of ideas. By just clicking the delete button, they can make your ideas disappear. Expel you out of cyberspace on a whim. This is an area that is arguably untouched by law. Worse, moderators could shut down your e-group and put it out of service temporarily without further explanation, as did my own e-group when it went down for twelve hours a few days ago.

We’ve learned from history that such seemingly natural right had fomented controversy, even to the point of bloodshed. Why have societies, past and present, found it necessary to restrict or even prohibit the exercise of the right to free speech?

Right-wing control of radio broadcasts in the United States has ignited talks about reviving the Fairness Doctrine which was abolished by the Federal Communications Commission in 1987. The Fairness Doctrine was introduced in 1949 with the original purpose of requiring holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in an honest, equitable and balance manner.

Just tune in to American radio broadcasts and listen to how ultra-right wing hosts spread outrageous lies about President Obama and his health care proposals, and it’s probably fair to say that these critics have gone over the line of civility and fairness. Russ Limbaugh, in one of his weekly addresses on radio, wished Obama would fail in his economic recovery plans. For one, Limbaugh believed that the economic stimulus plan of the Obama administration was aimed at re-establishing eternal power for the Democratic Party.

Today, there is widespread fear-mongering in the United States over Obama’s health care reform proposals on the airwaves and in blogosphere, and it has gone to absolutely ludicrous levels. Critics of the Obama health care plan accuse the U.S. president of being a socialist, a communist, and yes, even a fascist; that the Obama government is plotting to set up “death squads,” government tribunals authorized to euthanize the old and the sick. Even the health care programs of Canada and Great Britain have not been spared by all the diatribes hurled back and forth between critics and supporters of Obama’s public health care option. With all the emotions spent on the health care debate in the United States, one may wonder whether this raging animosity could push the country to the brink of another civil war.

But no (at least, not yet), the U.S. government is not censoring criticism or public debate. This is the nature of the democratic process. Passions and emotions may run high beyond the limits of civility, but these are only collateral elements of the tumult in the democratic debate of ideas.

The liberty to express oneself is highly valued in a liberal society. If not, there would no problem: freedom of expression could simply be curtailed in favour of other values. It only becomes a volatile issue whenever limitations are placed upon its exercise, this is what makes it controversial.

As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, a struggle always takes place between the competing demands of liberty and authority, and we cannot have the latter without the former.

But there are dangers of the “slippery slope,” as a possible consequence of limiting speech could be the inevitable slide into censorship and tyranny.

Who decides what limits to impose on free speech? What limits are reasonable and acceptable bearing in mind the general interest and welfare of the whole group? Are there appeals when a decision is made to block one’s posting? What punitive measures are imposed when limits are crossed?

Limits to free speech such as those imposed by group moderators on the Internet are oftentimes arbitrary and paternalistic in nature—meaning, those that impose, believe they are right and more so, that they have the right to impose limits. They assume the position of a protector, that it is their obligation to protect others from harm if speech or expression is not restricted. It’s like the idea of a Big Brother who must always watch over our shoulders to see to it that we don’t cross the limits. Questioning Big Brother is out of the question; it is not included in one’s right to free speech.

Restricting the right to free speech on the Internet may be justified when messages are offensive, obscene or promoting hate speech. Outside the Internet, there are already libel and defamation laws that can address abuses in exercising free speech.

But regulating free speech on the Internet, even though most providers like Yahoo, Gmail or Hotmail or e-group owners usually list as many as possible grounds which they can use to block or delete messages, may not be as easy as it may seem. Blogs and chat groups on the Internet continue to be littered with messages and postings that use trashy and colourful words and phrases that can offend those supersensitive to the language of the gutter or to acerbic and biting criticisms in general. On the other hand, if you are friendly and cozy to e-group administrators and moderators, even if your messages may contain threats of violence or irritating inanities, they may still be allowed as long as they are aimed at individuals its group members commonly detest.

Thus, the Internet also mirrors our society, our lives outside the medium and how we communicate. After all, it is only a tool and it is the user that controls it who determines how it’s going to be utilized.

Ultimately, it is up to readers to decide if a message is offensive to social morals or to standards of decency and acceptability. Self-regulation has been the prevalent practice on the Internet, and let’s leave it that way. The Internet is as large as humanity itself. From a practical point of view, no one community standard can govern the type of speech permissible on the Internet.

To impose sanctions and restrictions conjured by a group, which is not necessarily representative of a fair and just selection of morally upright citizens or members of an association, would be the easiest way to limit free expression. To respect the autonomy of the individual, we need to have a strong presumption in favour of individual liberty.

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