India Uncut

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The limits to free speech

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes in the Indian Express:
The idea that every one has to respect all religions is false, shallow and pernicious. Belief is not a matter of will. It is possible, after the good faith exercise of reason, to dislike the historical record of this or that religion. Why impose a contorted hypocrisy by obliging everyone to say that all religions are nice? All organised historical religions have crosses to bear. The test of tolerance is when we can put up with things people say about us, even when we don’t agree with them or like them. A society where people, within limits, are free to express their views of other religions, is far safer and more conducive to liberty than a society that calls for suspending historical judgment or theological disputation under the pretext of expressing respect.
Absolutely, and quite in synch with a similar point I'd made here. Mehta is a wonderfully eloquent writer, and one of our country's best essayists, but there are two words in the excerpt I just quoted that I find myself raising my eyebrows at: "within limits."

What are the limits that Mehta wants for free speech, and who decides when those limits are crossed? The government, which is always pandering to some interest group or the other?

You might argue, looking at Article 19 (1) (a) of the Indian constitution, that freedom of speech is protected in India: after all, it says, "All citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression.” Right after that, though, the authors of the constitution added Article 19 (2), which specifies a number of caveats to free speech (or limits as Mehta might term them), namely "the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence."

Consider how subjective some of these are, and left to the discretion of public officials. "Decency or morality," for example, or "incitement to an offence." How easy it would be for a babu to decide that this post of mine violates the first of those, and that this one violates the second. Contrast this with the American constitution's First Amendment, which does not allow for such subjective caveats.

In any case, I wouldn't second-guess Mehta on kind of limits to free expression he thinks are reasonable. I hope he writes about them sometime.

A previous post on free speech and giving offence: Do not draw my unicorn.
amit varma, 1:48 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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