Saying it all

Why is the US being seen as an idealistic outlier on free speech?

The global debate over speech defaming religion is once again intensifying. President Obama, in his recent address to the UN General Assembly, while denouncing the vile video that sparked off a wave of shameful and disgusting violent protests from Tunisia to Pakistan, roundly defended America's sacred icon: the First Amendment. But it is a sad historical fact that the United States is increasingly being seen as an outlier on free speech issues. The rest of the world, in some way or the other, is too easily embracing restrictions on free speech. European courts have long upheld the validity of blasphemy laws. They have also upheld a tricky distinction between doctrine and the manner in which it is expressed. Of course, the US, despite the First Amendment, does not have an unsullied history on freedom of expression; and this history complicates its authority on the matter.

There is also something to the curious insight Mark Twain had about freedom in the US, "Americans have freedom of speech and the freedom of thought and the good sense never to use either." Often, the legal doctrine of free speech has an easier time in contexts where unarticulated social restraints do not produce too much conflict. It is not hard to imagine, for example, that the history of the First Amendment might have been different if the US has been besieged by gratuitous representations of Christ. In short, in certain areas, social self-restraint put less pressure on the legal system.

But this sociological truth has two corollaries. The first is relevant to India. In the Indian context, the state has provided woefully inadequate protection for freedom of expression. While the Indian state is becoming less tolerant, it does not imply that society is becoming less tolerant. In fact, the opposite might be true. In some areas, at least, it is precisely because more people are thinking the previously unthinkable, breaking through taboos of social restraint, that conflicts over free speech are intensifying. Although, in other areas, the state is using its power in abusive ways. Pakistan has a frighteningly cruel blasphemy regime. But the ease with which we file sedition cases suggests that in legal terms sedition is threatening to become for India what blasphemy is for Pakistan. And there are parallels: the most heightened sensitivity to speech comes either from religion or nationalism. Improperly handled, both, in some ways, can consecrate death; both have elements of idolatry; both partake of a language of collective self-esteem and produce fragility in the self that has a will to repression.

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