Guest Article: Freedom of Speech – A Controversial Idea Worth Fighting For.

By Ioana Alexandra Tache, guest columnist and activist in human rights.

No matter where we come from we believe in freedom – freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of thought, freedom of belief. But in a world full of freedoms, what are the limits and how should they established? Where does freedom meet anarchy? Is there a good reason to hinder this freedom or is that just an abuse of power?

Whether we talk about the West or the East, every side of the world is struggling with freedom of speech, in all its shapes and forms. In order to exemplify how freedom of speech can be oppressed, in what follows we will discuss three examples of limitations to be found in the US, Europe (Romania) and Asia.

USA – University of Florida, Florida

Not so long ago we were witnessing the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. White nationalists gathered to protest against a plan to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, the Confederacy’s top general in the American civil war. Demonstrators chanted racist statements, carried anti-Semitic placards and held torches during the “Unite the Right” rally, which was organised by white nationalist Jason Kessler (The Guardian, 2017).

One of the influential figures in the ‘alt-right movement’ and a featured speaker at the violent protest was Richard Spencer. Soon after Charlottesville, Spencer tried to bring his discourse to the University of Florida, but the school denied his request on safety grounds. The concern was so great that Florida Gov. Rich Scott has even declared a state of emergency for Alachua County, over the potential for violence in connection with Spencer’s appearance. As freedom of speech issues were raised by Spencer and his lawyers, the University eventually accepted his visit, but at the same time, had to pay a security cost of $500,000. (Bauer, 2017)

Therefore, the university – a place for open and public discourse – was not only responsible to ensure security, but also had to spend quite a sum in order to protect its students from the hateful speech of a white supremacist and from any reaction that might have appeared in connection to Spencer’s speech.

Europe – Bucharest, Romania

The capital of Romania has been quite shaken socially and politically since the last Government elections in December 2016 (Context – The Guardian, 2017). The Social Democrats came to power, with an overwhelming win of +45% votes and a programme full of promises. Almost one year later, not much has been done for the country; mostly decisions, conflicts and priorities which only angered the young working class. Over the past year, we have seen a lot of protests, rallies and movements against corruption, the judiciary system, the public health and education system. Many agree that 2017 has been the year with the biggest outpouring of public anger since the fall of Communism.

Of course, as people started being more vocal and more convinced to take over the streets in order to be heard and listened to, after a protest on 5th November  (Romanian Insider, 2017), a new regulation is to be discussed. This law would allow the police to incriminate and even imprison the protesters for booing or use of offensive words or gestures. The police would subjectively decide which words or gestures do not meet the standards (Ziare.com, 2017).

Asia – China & India

The two ‘giants’ of Asia, China and India are already well known for their oppression of free speech and other freedoms.

On one side, back in October, Indian authorities have arrested cartoonist Tamil G Bala for posting one of his cartoons on social media platforms, on the grounds that it was ‘highly defamatory’ and it ‘obscenely depicted’ the district Collector, Superintendent of Police and the Chief Minister. Other cases of arrests over social media commentary or cartoon-sharing have been happening quite often on Indian land (Raja Ram, 2017). North of India, the situation is a bit different. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi is addressing the youth of Kashmir, saying that they should be having laptops in their hands instead of stones, internet-bans are regularly taking place in the region. Banning the internet is a ‘solution’ that the authorities take in order to solve the problem of riots; but ‘solving’ a problem creates others, such as affecting business, issues with freedom of speech or indications of an unhealthy democratic system (Wani, 2017).

On the other side, just yesterday (12th Nov) Australian publisher Allen & Unwin has ditched a book on Chinese Communist Party influence in Australian politics and academia, citing fear of legal action from the Chinese government or its proxies. The publisher was already considering to abandon the publication of a completed manuscript by Professor Clive Hamilton, called Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State, as the chief executive, Robert Gorman, was worried about potential threats to the book and the company from possible action by Beijing (Sydney Morning Herald, 2017).

Thus, once again, freedom of speech arrived to be a very controversial issue around the world. One’s perception of what is good, acceptable, inspirational can easily go the other direction for someone else. We’ve seen examples of how people, companies and institutions have to face dire consequences for enjoying in practice this freedom, this right  – whether we talk about money, prison or censorship.That is why, if we believe in a free world, we have to keep fighting for our rights and we have to talk about any kind of oppression we or others experience.

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