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Free speech can work only with mutual respect

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would allow hateful protests at military funerals has resulted in a public debate over the limits of free speech. The court ruled that the First Amendment protected those who engaged in a venomous protest at the funeral of a Marine who had died in Iraq.

Protesters from Westboro Baptist Church, whose headquarters are in Kansas, appeared at the funeral holding signs saying “God Hates Fags,” among other obscenities. They claim that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality.

With the church’s right-wing members planning to conduct similar protests at other funerals, the father of the fallen Marine, Albert Snyder, decided to sue the protesters for intentional infliction of emotional distress. However, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of protecting the protesters by saying that their views are a matter of public concern. The judges ruled to protect the American commitment to free speech, even hurtful speech, to ensure that “we do not stifle public debate”.

Across the Atlantic, world-renowned fashion designer John Galliano was fired by Christian Dior for making anti-Semitic remarks while drunk at a Paris bar. The British designer was quoted as saying, “I love Hitler, and people like you would be dead today. Your mothers, your forefathers, would be ... gassed and ... dead.” Some celebrity friends of Galliano came to his defense, saying he might not have meant to say what he said. But the damage had been done and the British designer was fired. Galliano could be put on trial because speech inciting racial hatred is a crime in France.

The two incidents show the power of words and how different societies react to them. France’s law prohibits declarations that justify crimes against humanity. Regardless of whether Galliano might have been provoked into making racial slurs, or whatever circumstance compelled him to do so, he has been punished by a society where memories of the Holocaust are still vivid.

Although many Americans feel sympathy for the father of the fallen Marine, they believe that free speech must be upheld because it reflects the moral virtue of a society that Americans are proud of.

Of course, free speech is a desirable and essential element in any democratic society. Members of the public in a mature democratic society should be able to participate in debates on issues of national interest. People should be able to express their agreement or dissent. But the public should be able to react rationally. The victims in this incident ― the family of the dead Marine and those who disagree with the church’s protest ― should have a venue to present their opinion, to ensure that there is indeed a fair public debate on the issue. If not, there is a danger of information flow being overwhelming from only one side.

Freedom of expression is sacrosanct because it encourages the public to debate and exchange views to enhance understanding on certain issues. The audience should be able to use its intellect to judge. But free speech is different from the irresponsible statements that some politicians are inclined to make. And they avoid taking responsibility for what they say by citing the right to free speech.

Thailand has recently seen an increased debate over the limits of free speech. Some irresponsible statements have been repeated over and over, and so noisily that they have had an influence on certain members of the public. Some of these views have unnecessarily raised political tensions.

People in a democratic society have to learn to digest information and not react emotionally to things they hear but might not approve of. It is virtually impossible for the authorities to suppress all information or prohibit anyone from making certain statements, especially those anonymous writers who spread vitriol and rumour via the Internet. As a result, we must learn to focus on constructive debate instead of only the sound bites that force their way into the news headlines.

An absence of public debate on fundamental issues will not lead to knowledge or wisdom. In the worst case scenario, bigoted and attention-deficit people remember only the hate messages, not the real issues.

(The Nation, March 10)
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