Freedom of speech antecedents back to the Athenian Democratic Principle circa early 5th or 6th century. The hypothesis of free speech can be found on early human rights document, for instance England’s Bill of Rights 1689, which set the ground for free speech in the house of parliament. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, set up by the constituent assembly of France in 1789, was the first to welcome free speech as a sacrosanct right. The Constitution of India has enshrined freedom of speech on its body as one of the six fundamental rights guaranteed to its citizens. Even though being much aware of the idea’s objective, is free speech in peril?
Recently there has been much upheaval about dissent being part of freedom of speech, much chaos politically, has attracted mixed views from the all-knowing social media users to several human rights activist. Looking at France, people are left discombobulated about how a free breathing idea engender grim consequences. The incident revolves around a teacher, Samuel Paty, who was left headless for showing a caricature of the Muslim prophet to his students. French President Emmanuel Macron and several other world leaders have condemned the incident while France being jostled between freedom of speech and secularism.
A grave question arises, what is the discernible region of free speech? Back in 2015, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, constituting a bench of Hon’ble Justice Deepak Mishra and Hon’ble Justice Prafulla C. Pant observed in the case of Devidas Ramachandra Tuljapurkar v. State of Maharashtra, that freedom of speech is not an absolute right and it has some reasonable restrictions within the parameters of our constitution. They even added that Article 19(1)(a) of the constitution is not absolute in vista of Article 19(2) of the constitution. Behind every controversial statement or admission, one must look for the motive, is it to incite dreaded chaos erupting like an active volcano or to express one’s opinion. In 1962, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India demarcated free speech and sedition in the landmark ruling of the case Kedarnath Singh v. State of Bihar, in the constitutional bench of Hon’ble former chief justice Bhuvaneshwar Prasad Sinha, Justice A.K. Sarkar, Justice J.R. Madholkar, Justice N. Rajagopala Ayyangar and Justice S.K. Das. Dissent plays a vital and healthy part for governing the ruling party and keep them in check. In recent years, new techniques of coercing limited speech have been introduced, such instance is when a doctor was attributed to say something she never said while delivering a speech in Aligarh Muslim University, somewhere around December 2019, for a protest of CAA and NRC. After one month, he was arrested for delivering an inciting speech. Ten days later, he was approved bail but was not released from prison. After that, he was kept in preventive detention under the National Security Act. The doctor confronted it in the Hon’ble High Court of Allahabad and the order was quashed. The Hon’ble Court conjectured that the petitioner allegedly said things which he did not.
The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India recently observed that television channels are allegedly misusing the power of free speech, giving up the its primary role of being a watchdog and instead fall back on to trials and broadcasting one-sided narratives.
A top grossing incident now, the dramatic manner in which Republic TV editor Arnab Goswami was arrested is the center of discussion for suffocation of free speech and personal liberty, engendering senior ministers, leaders and Editors Guild of India enunciate their tenets. Rolling over the cause of the arrest, an interior designer and his mother committed suicide in Mumbai in 2018, allegedly because the victim was not paid his honorarium for the job he did in Goswami’s office. This scene engenders emergence of bigger questions on the state of governance in the country today and the role being played by the fourth pillar of democracy. One will be in denial if they don’t accept the fact how heavily media has been politicized in recent years, not just in India but all over the world.
This year the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India has divulged that access to internet a fundamental right. The judgement came into occurrence on hearing of a pleading in connection with Internet blockade in Jammu and Kashmir since August 5 in the view of revocation of Article 370 of the constitution in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir citing security concerns and emerging anti-national activities. It has been listed in Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution being a part of free expression of thoughts and speech. Internet is the foremost source of information to the citizens. A non-citizen can employ the same benefits but cannot assert it as her fundamental right.
Free speech is not a right only for the elite classes of the country, even criticized to be one, possibility of one reason is faltering on political ideologies. Rather, free speech has caused the marginalized people of the society to express their interests in various issues including constructive judgment of the chosen representative. None of us can justify the limit of free speech by causing physical harm or hurting religious sentiments to cause violence.
Some legal savants for instance Tom Wu, Colombia University, have argued that the traditional drawbacks of free speech that worrying threat to free speech is the censorship of totalitarian states, and that mal-informed or malevolent speech can and ought to be overcome by "more and better speech" rather than suffocating. This lacking came under light during the 20th century, but with the introduction of the internet, information became plentiful, "but the attention of listeners" still lack.
One’s voice is important and ought to be heard. One preserves the right to say what he/she surmise, share true information and demand a finer world. One also has the right to give assent or express displeasure with those in power, and to express these slants in amicable protests. Employing these rights in use, without trepidation or unlawful interference, is synonymous to living in an open and fair society; in which the amass can access justice and enjoy their human rights. Governments have a duty to embargo hateful, inciteful speech but many abuse their power to hush peaceful dissent by passing laws against freedom of expression, often done disguised under the excuse of counter terrorism, national security or religion. How governments endure censorious views and voices is often a good sign of how they treat human rights in rem.
It is cardinal for each of us to wield our fundamental rights within certain boundaries. It is time for all the institutions of a healthy society to realize that the people of this country express their dissent in good faith, and in any democracy, there are bound to be different points of view. These must be respected — otherwise the spirit of our society might splinter, and fraternity, one of the arch words in the preamble to our constitution we have given ourselves, might just become another corpse. Reminding in the end what John Milton expressed in the ‘Areopagitica’:
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”